Federal Shield Law (Finally) Faces Senate Committee Vote

By: Joe Strupp The latest version of a federal shield law is facing another hurdle in the U.S. Senate this week. It as goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday for a likely vote.

SB448 co-sponsored by Sen. Arlen Spector, D-Pa.; Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.; and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; would provide protection for journalists seeking to keep confidential sources anonymous at the federal level. While some 39 states have such a law, none exists for federal court cases.

Another version of the bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year.

"It takes into account the needs of both sides," said Kevin Goldberg, legal counsel for the American Society of News Editors, which has been urging passage of the bill. "The needs of reporters to protect sources unless the information is absolutely needed in court and the needs of government to have access to information and even sources in the right circumstances."

The bill was changed last week during a hearing before the committee, with some amendments proposed, Goldberg said. He added that more changes could occur on Thursday before a vote.

"We are very hopeful, we are feeling very confident," he said. "We are pretty confident this bill will get out of the judiciary committee."

Several newspapers this week are running editorials urging passage of the legislation. Among those are The Sacramento Bee, Dallas Morning News, Newsday, The Buffalo News, Las Vegas Review-Journal and The News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash.

"The reality is that sometimes sources face retaliation - anything from getting fired to getting killed - if their names become known," the News Tribune editorial Tuesday stated. "Sometimes protecting sources' identities is the only way important information can come to light. And that's why journalists have been willing to go to jail - to protect their sources and the principle of confidentiality."

The Bee, in an editorial today, declared: "such a shield law can be crucial to making sure that the First Amendment works as the framers intended. The Constitution says that Congress shall "make no law" abridging the freedom of the press. But if federal officials can squelch the release of sensitive information - even if their practices are found to fit within the Constitution - they can have a chilling effect that keeps the public in the dark about government abuses."

Then there is Newsday, which on Tuesday stated simply: "Sometimes there are things citizens should know that powerful government officials would rather they didn't."

Many of the editorials were in response to an ASNE plea for editorial support posted on its Web site on Monday.

"Because we expect that those opposed to the concept of a federal shield law will introduce hostile amendments - perhaps dozens of them - at Thursday's markup, we especially urge you to let these Senators know they should vote against any amendments that will further weaken S 448," the ASNE statement noted.


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