Support Builds for Federal Shield Law, But Passage Unlikely This Year

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(AP) Legislation to require prosecutors and judges to meet strict national standards and exhaust other remedies before they could subpoena reporters has both Republicans and Democrats as sponsors in the House and Senate.

Support is building now that several reporters are closer to facing jail, but the Bush administration is silent on the issue and Congress isn’t likely to vote on it this year.

“This is a kind of issue that will take a great deal more public attention before it reaches critical mass,” said Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, the bill’s chief Republican sponsor in the House.

So far, a dozen House members have signed on to Pence’s “free flow of information act,” which in general would prohibit federal entities from forcing reporters to disclose the identity of a confidential source. A similar measure has four co-sponsors in the Senate.

John F. Sturm, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, said the bill’s status isn’t bad for legislation less than two months old in a year when the judiciary committees that must act on it first are jammed with other issues. He predicted hearings, but not House or Senate votes, later this year.

“Folks have to really understand what it means to them, and that requires some education with the members,” Sturm said. “We’ve got a ways to go.”

Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the issue is new for the panel.

Similar legislation died amid industry disagreement two decades ago. Its revival follows increased showdowns among judges, prosecutors and journalists. At least 16 reporters and 14 news organizations are involved in legal fights in courthouses from Washington to San Francisco.

In perhaps the highest-profile case, a federal judge found Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine in contempt for refusing to disclose their sources to prosecutors trying to find who leaked the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame.

The very prospect of protecting reporters from the threat of jail earned Pence some ribbing when he first asked other Republicans for support.

“‘Is this the first sign of Armageddon?” he recalled one colleague asking. “Man, did I get teased.”

Pence said the teasing stopped when the issue was put in terms of judges threatening mum reporters with jail time and what that would mean to a democratic system of government that values a free press.

“It is important that we ensure reporters certain rights and abilities to seek sources and report appropriate information without fear of intimidation or imprisonment,” said Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, the bill’s top Republican sponsor in the Senate. “This includes the right to refuse to reveal confidential sources.”

Without such protections, Lugar said, “many whistleblowers will refuse to step forward and reporters will be disinclined to provide our constituents with the information that they have a right to know.”

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