Federal shield law moving forward in Senate after compromise forged with White House

The federal journalist shield law cleared a major hurdle when the Obama administration cut a deal with the Senate to include freelancers and online journalists. The bill also includes a public-interest balance test so that a judge could weigh the public interest in secrecy against the public interest in disclosure. -DB

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
October 30, 2009
By Ansley Schrimpf

Two senators announced Friday that the Obama administration has agreed to a deal that could allow plans for a federal journalist shield law to move forward next week.

Sens. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced that the new version of the Free Flow of Information Act will no longer only apply to “salaried employees” and independent contractors for established news organizations, but will cover freelancers and online journalists. The bill will also preserve a public-interest balancing test for criminal, civil and leak cases, meaning that a judge will be able to weight the public interest in confidentiality against the public interest served by compelled disclosure. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to mark up the revised bill on Thursday.

“The negotiated compromise creates a fair standard to protect the public interest, journalists, the news media, bloggers, prosecutors and litigants,” said Specter. “The news media kept up the pressure for years to produce this compromise for a major improvement over current procedures where journalists have been threatened, fined and jailed for appropriately protecting sources.”

Currently, no federal law shields reporters who refuse to disclose confidential sources even though 37 states and the District of Columbia have laws providing legal protection. The House passed a version of the shield law but the measure has until now stalled in the Senate.

The Senate Judiciary Committee debated the shield law bill in September, but several senators raised concerns about balancing the government’s need to know information with the reporter’s right to protect it. When Schumer introduced a new definition in September that would have excluded many bloggers and Internet journalists, the committee quickly adopted it. Now Schumer supports a broader definition that would provide protection for freelancers and those who write for the Internet, according to Specter’s release.

Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee, told the New York Times the deal is far from inked.“This is a huge deal, but it’s not a done deal, and quite honestly, until all of the media coalition members sign off on it, it’s not a deal,” she said. The Reporters Committee is among the media organizations that have worked to move the shield bill through Congress.

Specter credited White House negotiators with orchestrating the compromise.

The Obama administration hailed the president as the first commander-in-chief to support a federal media shield law and White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said he expects the measure to move forward with bipartisan support.

“We have been engaged with members of the Senate and the media to craft legislation that protects the confidentiality of reporters’ sources and gives the courts the power to decide whether the disclosure of such information is ever necessary in the interests of national security or other imperatives,” LaBolt said. “The President looks forward to signing it into law.”

Copyright 2009 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.