Media advocates push shield law

WASHINGTON D.C. — After the imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller for refusing to reveal anonymous sources, lawmakers’ and journalists’ attention is focused on efforts to pass a federal shield law that would protect journalists –including student journalists — from having to reveal their sources.

A panel of journalists, editors and media lawyers urged members of the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing on July 20 to pass the Free Flow of Information Act, introduced in the spring by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) The panel testified that the law was needed to protect other journalists from what happened to Miller.

The bill, as it was originally introduced, would protect journalists from being forced to reveal their sources. The bill was amended to permit requiring journalists to testify when all non-media sources have testified and the journalist’s testimony is necessary to prevent an imminent threat to national security.

The law would affect student journalists because a journalist or ”covered person” is identified as ”an entity that disseminates information by print, broadcast, cable, satellite, mechanical, photographic, electronic, or other means. Publishes a newspaper, book, magazine, or other periodical; operates a radio or television broadcast station (or network of such stations), cable system, or satellite carrier, or a channel or programming service for any such station, network, system, or carrier.”

Although more than 30 many states have recognized legal protections that shield journalists partially or completely, experts testified that a federal statute is needed to clear up confusion of when a reporter can promise a source complete anonymity.

Although a representative from the U.S. Department of Justice did not testify at the hearing, in a prepared statement Deputy Attorney General James Comey said the legislation is ”bad public policy” and said it ”hurts the government’s ability to effectively enforce the law and fight terrorism.”

But Floyd Abrams, one of Miller’s lawyers, said efforts to stop crime would not be hurt by the legislation.

”In my view, when a journalist speaks to her sources and promises them confidentiality, she should keep her word — period,” Abrams said at the hearing. ”And she should be protected by law in doing just that except in the most extraordinary circumstances — the sort referred to in the revised Free Flow of Information Act.”

The bill must be voted on by the committee before going on to the full House and Senate. The likelihood of the bill advancing quickly out of committee seems small as the Senate Judiciary Committee takes on the task of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justice nominee John Roberts.

Mark Hayes, deputy press secretary for Lugar, said the senator is hopeful the committee will be able to pass the bill along after confirming Roberts.

”Clearly [members of the Senate Judiciary Committee] have a daunting task ahead of them, but the senator hopes the committee will be able to wrap up the debate and confirm Judge Roberts in October,” Hayes said. ”[Lugar] is hopeful the Senate Judicial Committee will then have time to move on to the media shield bill.”