Federal shield bill clears Senate committee with protection for college journalists

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A federal shield bill that would afford journalists and their sources greater protection passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The bill, called the Free Flow of Information Act, will now go before the full Senate.

If enacted, it would make it much harder to prosecutors to legally compel journalists, including college journalists, to disclose confidential information like a source’s identity.

“This legislation ensures that the tough investigative journalism that holds government accountable will be able to thrive,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who sponsored the bill, said in a statement Thursday. “I’m hopeful that both parties can come together and pass it quickly on the Senate floor.”

The bill defines “journalists” as those who had contracts with media outlets for one of the last 20 years, or 3 months out the last five years, or a “substantial track record” as a freelancer. An amendment added Thursday explicitly included college students.

“High school journalists aren’t explicitly mentioned, but there is a really helpful catch-all that would let a judge extend the protection to an otherwise not-protected person in a certain circumstance,” said Frank LoMonte, the Student Press Law Center’s executive director.

The SPLC collaborated with the Newspaper Association of America to ensure student journalists were included in the bill.

“I’m happy that our concerns were almost entirely incorporated,” LoMonte said.

Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said recent cases pitting the Department of Justice against journalists has helped to make Congress recognize that journalists have a Constitutional right to hold the government accountable.

“Congress tends to only act when it sees a need to,” Leslie said. “It’s been an eight- to 10-year effort to reach this stage.”

A nearly identical bill made it through the judiciary committee in 2009, but no farther than that.

Sophia Cope, a Newspaper Association of America attorney, said she could not estimate when the bill would go before the full Senate.

“Unfortunately, it’ll have a lot of legislative competition in terms of timing,” she said.

A main difference between the 2013 bill and its 2009 counterpart was the debate over how to define a “journalist,” Cope said. At the judiciary committee hearing Thursday, some congress members were concerned that its language would end up protecting spies posing as journalists.

The amended bill that passed the committee explicitly excludes terrorism-affiliated groups and entities whose main purpose “is to publish primary source documents that have been disclosed to such entity without authorization.”

A similar bill introduced in the House in May, HR1962, was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee but has yet to be discussed there. The house bill uses a narrower definition of journalist, offering protection for an individual “who, for financial gain or livelihood, is engaged in journalism.”

The NAA, Reporters Committee, SPLC and dozens of other media organizations signed a letter last week urging Congress members to pass the bill without weakening the protections it provides.

“In the wake of revelations that the Justice Department secretly obtained the communications records of AP and Fox News reporters, a federal shield law is needed now more than ever to prevent government overreach and protect the public’s right to know,” the letter reads.

By Samantha Sunne, SPLC staff writer. Contact Sunne by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 123.