Federal shield bill passes Senate judiciary committee

Cristina Abello | Reporter's Privilege | Feature | December 10, 2009

The Senate Judiciary Committee today voted to present the federal media shield bill to the full Senate, a new milestone this year for legislation that has been tabled, debated and amended for months in the committee.

Although the Obama administration publicly supported the bill, a few senators from both parties expressed reservations about the legislation week after week. While this legislation was first introduced in February, another version reached the Senate floor last year but never received a final vote.

Today the committee today discussed one of the bill's most contentious issues -- defining who will be a covered journalist. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., put forth a proposal to limit the definition to cover an employee of a media outlet (salaried or nonsalaried), exclude those who write anonymously and apply only to information disseminated through a "news medium" -- a definition that would exclude some electronic media. But the amendment was rejected and the committee approved the bill with its previous definition of a journalist, which is a person who has the the intent to disseminate information to the public. Sponsors promised that they would continue to work with Feinstein and Durbin on the definition before the bill reaches the Senate floor, which is not expected soon.

Bill co-sponsor Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., vigorously defended the bill in its current state.

"The careful balance that we’ve chosen between the need to garner confidential information and the need to make sure that that confidential information doesn’t violate a vital national interest, is the way we need to go," he said.

Several amendments were proposed and rejected, but the committee approved others, including additional exceptions to the privilege in order to prevent “incapacitation or destruction of critical infrastructure" and specific crimes against minors. Another accepted amendment slightly broadened the language about conditions for compelling the disclosure of information with regard to criminal cases.