By: Joe Strupp
Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) on Friday introduced a federal shield law that would provide an “absolute protection” for confidential sources. The legislation is in response to a slew of recent court actions demanding reporters reveal sources.
“This legislation is fundamentally about good government and the free and unfettered flow of information to the public,” Dodd said in a statement released Friday. “The American people deserve access to a wide array of views so that they can make informed decisions and effectively participate in matters of public concern. The legislation that I am introducing today will protect these rights, and ensure that the government remains open and accountable to its citizens.”
The “Free Speech Protection Act of 2004” protects against compelled disclosure for sources, regardless of whether or not the source was promised confidentiality, Dodd’s statement explains. “The protection against compelled disclosure of news and information, however, is qualified — that is, an individual involved in gathering news would be required to reveal their unpublished material only under certain circumstances,” the statement adds.
Dodd’s legislation comes in the wake of a string of court cases in which reporters for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time magazine, and others have been either held in contempt, subpoenaed for source information, or ordered to jail.
The most recent action occurred Thursday when a judge convicted Providence, R.I., television reporter Jim Taricani of criminal contempt for refusing to reveal how he obtained an FBI video of a city official taking a bribe. He is due to be sentenced Dec. 9.
Currently, 31 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws, which protect reporters from revealing confidential sources. But no federal law exists that would extend to federal court proceedings.
“There is currently a patchwork of inconsistent court decisions and state statutes that provide protections for individuals and organizations that gather and disseminate news and information,” Dodd’s statement said. “The protections that these laws and court rulings provide vary widely in detail and scope. The national standard enshrined in The Free Speech Protection Act of 2004 would alleviate many of these concerns.”
John F. Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America, praised the action. “A federal shield law will allow journalists to do their jobs without fear of penalty,” Sturm said in a statement responding to Dodd’s proposal. “It is in the public’s best interests that reporters’ privileges are preserved, and Sen. Dodd’s bill is the first step toward providing stronger protection for journalists, not to mention reminding Americans that our First Amendment rights are at stake.”