By: Joe Strupp
A federal shield law, which many news organizations have sought in response to a recent string of court actions demanding reporters reveal confidential sources, is expected to be introduced in Congress as early as Friday by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), E&P has learned.
Dodd has called a 1:15 p.m. press conference for Friday to lay out his plans for the potentially groundbreaking legislation. His staff said a bill would be introduced either Friday or Saturday.
Several attorneys closely involved with the handful of cases in which reporters have been subpoenaed, held in contempt, or ordered to jail for refusing to disclose sources told E&P that a Dodd-sponsored measure is likely to come within days.
Currently, 31 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws, which protect reporters from revealing confidential sources. But, to date, no federal law exists, which would extend these protections to reporters targeted in federal cases.
“I’m told that something is going to be introduced by Sen. Dodd this week,” said George Freeman, an attorney for The New York Times, who has been overseeing that paper’s response to several subpoenas, including those seeking phone records and source information from reporter Judith Miller. “I understand [Dodd’s bill] is quite good from a substantive point of view — absolute protection for confidential sources.”
Noted press attorney Floyd Abrams, who is also advising the Times on these cases, said he spoke with Dodd’s office several days ago about the legislation. “The concept is a broad, absolute protection for the identities of confidential sources,” Abrams told E&P. “I’ve heard it is to come out this week.”
“We need it,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, referring to the likely Dodd legislation. “This is the time for it when you have all of these cases cascading down at once. At least it would slow them down. I think if we do this right, we can pull it off.”
Dodd’s office, however, would not confirm or deny that such legislation was being formulated. Deputy Press Secretary Holly Barnes said only, “I have nothing to give you.”
The Times is one of several news organizations that have been ordered in recent months to reveal sources or turn over other reporting source documents. Others include The Washington Post and Time magazine.
The most recent action occurred Thursday when a judge in U.S. District Court 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.
Freeman said he had been against a federal shield law in the past, but believes it is now needed given the recent rash of court cases. “I think we’ve gotten to the point where it would be helpful,” Freeman said. “It would be better than the bulk of decisions we are getting.”