Some student journalists covered under proposed federal shield law, senators' aides say

A federal bill that would givejournalists the ability to protect the identities of confidential sources wouldalso apply to paid student reporters, senators’ aides say. But the manystudent journalists who do not get paid for their work might not be coveredunder the bill.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., last month introduced theFree Flow of Information Actof 2006, a federal reporters’ shield law. The bill, which is currentlyawaiting a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would protect reporters infederal courts from subpoenas that would lead to the compelled disclosure of theidentities of confidential sources. A similarbill is making its waythrough the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee and may be heardsometime next month.

Mark Hayes, deputy press secretary for Lugar,said the primary intent of the Senate bill is to protect

“professional” journalists from being subpoenaed, although he saidpaid student reporters could be included under the bill’s definition of“journalist.”

“The definition says ‘salariedemployees or independent contractors for newspapers,’ so … then if they[students] are contracted to write the stories, then according to thisdefinition, they would be covered,” Hayes said.

The completedefinition of “journalist” under the Senate’s bill is “aperson who, for financial gain or livelihood, is engaged in gathering,preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting orpublishing news or information as a salaried employee or independent contractorfor a newspaper, news journal, news agency, book publisher, press association,wire service, radio or television station, network, magazine, Internet newsservice or other professional medium or agency which has one of its regularfunctions the procession and researching of news or information intended fordissemination to the public.”

Colleen Flanagan, deputy presssecretary for one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Christopher Dodd,D-Conn., said Dodd had wanted to make the language more precise so that studentjournalists would be universally included.

“The language as itstands is fairly ambiguous,” Flanagan said. “Some students arecovered because they are paid. But like I said, it is very ambiguous. We did tryto push for stronger language to make it clear that students and othernon-traditional journalists would be covered. We fought for the language, butunfortunately it was not accepted by the othersinvolved.”

Dodd, as well as Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Penn.,Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., signed on to co-sponsor thebill on May 18, the day it was introduced. Representatives from the remainingsenators’ offices did not return calls for comment.

NeilRalston, a campus adviser-at-large for the Society of Professional Journalists,said SPJ has pushed for a federal shield law. He said he thinks such laws do notnecessarily need to include “student journalists” specifically intheir language, because the term is already implied.

“As far asthe Society of Professional Journalists is concerned, we’ve never tried tomake a distinction between journalists and student journalists in our attempt toget shield laws passed,” he said. “For our purposes we seejournalists and student journalists as the same.”

The Senatelegislation would provide journalists with a “qualified” privilege,rather than an “absolute” privilege, because there are someexceptions to the protections that the bill provides. The bill states thatbefore a judge may subpoena a journalist to obtain an anonymous source’sidentity or other information obtained under the promise of confidentiality,investigators must present “clear and convincing evidence” that theyhave “exhausted alternative sources of the information,” that

“nondisclosure of the information would be contrary to the publicinterest” and that “there are reasonable grounds … to believe thata crime has occurred and that the information sought is critical to theinvestigation or prosecution.”

The Senate bill does notprotect from subpoena any unpublished material gathered from non-confidentialsources.

The House bill would give qualified protection tojournalists for all unpublished material and absolute protection forconfidential sources, except when “such a source is necessary to preventimminent and actual harm to national security.”

If signed intolaw, the federal bill would become the first to apply the reporters’privilege to the national level. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbiahave shield laws to protect journalists within their jurisdictions.

Connecticut became the 32nd state to enact such a law earlier thismonth when ashield bill wassigned into law. Rep. James Spallone, D-Essex, the author of the “ActConcerning Freedom of the Press,” said that although the law does notmention student journalists specifically, the language of the law is broadenough to include them.

“I would say that students are coveredbecause a student would be an ‘agent’ of a newspaper or magazine orother periodical…,” he said. “It was certainly not my intention toexclude student journalists. I was a student journalistmyself.”

The Connecticut law will provide journalists withqualified protection, but Spallone said he originally proposed an absoluteshield law for confidential sources that would have protected journalists fromsubpoena under any circumstances. This version of the bill originally passed inthe Connecticut House of Representatives, but Spallone said it was changed outof a compromise in the state Senate.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed the bill June 6.