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WASHINGTON — Members of Congress have tried for five decades to craft a federal law that would prevent journalists from revealing confidential sources — and they’re trying again.
The latest proposed shield law, called the Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying (PRESS) Act, is sponsored by Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Rockville, Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California. It was passed unanimously by the House Judiciary Committee on April 6.
“Without a federal shield law, we make reporters and journalists vulnerable to threats of lawsuits or imprisonment simply for doing their job,” Raskin said in a statement to Capital News Service. “I introduced the Press Act to fulfill the constitutional promise of a free press, and I look forward to the bill being put to a vote in front of the full House of Representatives.”
Protective laws prevent journalists in legal proceedings from revealing their sources of information acquired during the reporting process. Journalists sometimes use confidential sources to obtain important information that otherwise would not be available to the public.
Efforts to pass a federal shield law date back to the 1970s and involved some prominent lawmakers — including the then-Rep. Mike Pence, R-Indiana, the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and the late Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana — but all ended in failure.
Raskin previously sponsored a shield bill in 2017. The measure was based on a Pence proposed a decade earlier.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, introduced a version of Raskin’s bill last year, but so far it has not had a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Kevin Goldberg, a lawyer and First Amendment expert at the Freedom Forum, told CNS he remains skeptical that the latest legislation will pass through the Senate.
Goldberg noted that the Free Flow of Information Act, a predecessor to the current bill, passed by vote in the House on March 31, 2009, but never left the Senate.
“This time around, hopefully it can pass because from what I’ve seen, Raskin has taken steps to address some of the usual concerns involved here,” Goldberg said.
Opponents of previous shield bill proposals have raised concerns about the wording regarding exceptions in situations where journalists have gathered confidential information regarding national security, terrorism or the potential loss of life.
Goldberg said the press law is “slightly narrower” than previous legislation and includes limited exceptions where qualified privilege would be removed for journalists.
According to the text of the legislation.
According to Gabe Rottman, director of the Technology and Freedom of the Press project for the Committee of Journalists for Freedom of the Press (RCFP).
He told CNS that shield laws were “crucially important for the free flow of information.”
“If sources are concerned that speaking to a reporter will subject them to scrutiny, they will not speak to reporters and then the public loses newsworthy information in the public interest,” Rottman said.
Yarmuth, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, knows the inner workings of journalism better than many of his congressional colleagues. He founded the Louisville Eccentric Observer (LEO) in 1990 and was a columnist there for 16 years.
“As the first member of the Society of Professional Journalists to be elected to Congress, I know how important it is that we protect journalists and their ability to speak truth to power without fear of reprisal or reprisal,” said Yarmuth said in a statement.
Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia have protective laws in place to protect journalists.
Goldberg noted that even though all 50 states had shield laws, without federal protection, a journalist’s promise of confidentiality cannot be guaranteed.
“You could be in a state like Maryland that has the oldest and one of the strongest shield laws, but if you end up in federal court, that goes away, that doesn’t apply, because the Maryland law applies only in the State of Maryland. courts,” he said.
“Nobody likes to use confidential sources,” Goldberg added. “When (journalists) do it, it’s because the public really benefits from the information that is obtained.”
The Society for Professional Journalists is one of the media advocacy organizations that has endorsed the legislation.
“The Society of Professional Journalists applauds the House Judiciary Committee which voted unanimously to pass the Press Law,” SPJ President Rebecca Aguilar said in a statement to CNS.
Aguilar added, “Journalists are about to do their job, knowing that the federal government cannot force them to reveal their confidential sources or their research documents. The goal of all journalists is to seek the truth without obstacles that can prevent us from doing so.
Journalist privilege, similar to doctor-patient privilege and attorney-client privilege, is widely recognized as essential to a functioning press, Goldberg said.
“Privileges exist under the law…because someone recognized that the flow of information between two people is so fundamentally important to those people, to those relationships, and to society as a whole,” he said. he declares. “It’s instantly recognizable why they exist and why they matter. There are good reasons to believe that the journalist’s relationship is so valuable to society that we must protect it.