Language of proposed shield law would extend protection to student journalists

WASHINGTON, DC — The Free Flow of Information Act, a federalshield law bill that would protect journalists from having to revealconfidential information, is set to move one step closer to becoming law when itis considered Thursday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Student journalists, bloggers and individuals seeking to gather informationfor the purpose of informing the public are protected by the language containedin the new version of the bill, which was agreed upon last week by lawmakers,the Obama administration and media organizations.

According to the amended text of HR 985, a covered person is, “Aperson with the primary intent to investigate events and procure material inorder to disseminate to the public news or information …”

Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center, said thecurrent definition of a journalist contained in the bill is good news forstudent news organizations.

“The compromise language is as good as student journalists couldexpect because it focuses on the news gathering aspect, not where your paycheckis coming from,” LoMonte said. “As long as you set out to gatherinformation to inform the public, you’re protected.”

LoMonte said this measure is especially important for students journalists,because they are often more vulnerable than professional journalists.

“Students especially need something like this because they are sovulnerable,” he said. “Unlike someone at The New York Times,which has a huge legal department, student journalists don’t have thosekind of resources.”

He said students are additionally important to protect because they arebeing asked to take on more important roles, acting as local news correspondentsor freelancers for local papers.

“Students are engaging in real, big-time journalism and need theprotection of real, big-time journalists,” he said.

The bill protects journalists from being required to give their testimonyrelating to sources for a story. It also guards against obtainingreporters’ phone and Internet records.

The current bill varies in the protection it offers, based on whether thecase the reporter may be involved in is a civil, criminal or national securitycase.

Sophia Cope, legislative counsel for the Newspaper Association of America(NAA), said her organization is happy with the bill as it stands.

The NAA, Cope said, is the lead organization for the media working on thefederal shield effort, representing over 2,000 newspapers and 70 other newsorganizations. She said ultimately, it would have been nice to have a strongerbill to protect reporters, but that the compromise has been fair.

“Overall, the [current] state of federal law is very weak in terms ofprotecting reporters and confidential sources, and inconsistent, because eachcircuit has done its own thing,” she said. “A federal bill wouldbolster what the state laws have already been trying to do in encouragingwhistleblowers while not unduly impeding law enforcement.”

Cope said she is pleased with the definition of who is protected by thebill. A couple weeks ago, she said, there was a financial component required todefine a person as a journalist.

“Our coalition has always been opposed to having a financialcomponent,” she said. “The NAA thinks it’s important becausejournalism is done by lots of different people. We wouldn’t want toexclude anybody who had been working with confidential sources and had publishedsome good information that helps our country as a whole.”

Cope also expressed hope that the bill will pass, now that the Obamaadministration has pledged its support.

A version of the bill passed the House on March 31, 2009. A similar billstalled in the Senate when it lost the support of Obama administration, saidThe New York Times, because the administration wanted a version of thebill that would allow the government more leeway in cases that had nationalsecurity concerns.

The bill regained momentum last week when lawmakers, the Obamaadministration and news organizations reached a compromise on the terms includedin the bill, which would allow the government some leeway in requiringjournalists to give up some information on sources when it has to do with publicsafety or terrorist activities.

If the bill passes the Senate Judiciary Committee, it will move on to theSenate to be voted on before heading to President Obama’s desk for hissignature.