Federal shield law introduced in House once more

J.C. Derrick | Reporter's Privilege | Feature | September 19, 2011

In the latest step in a seven-year effort to pass a federal shield law, Republican Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana has re-introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would provide protections for journalists in federal courts.

Over the weekend, Pence announced that he filed the Free Flow of Information Act of 2011, which is the same legislation he co-sponsored in 2005, 2007 and 2009. The proposed legislation passed in the house but died on the Senate floor the two most recent times. His chief co-sponsor of those earlier efforts, Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia, was defeated in the 2010 election. In late 2004, Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut introduced a similar bill in the Senate, which marked the first such effort in decades.

The proposed bill will provide a qualified privilege for journalists with exceptions for national security, the prevention of death or bodily harm, or information that is deemed essential in a criminal case or critical in a civil suit. The bill defines a journalist as someone who regularly reports and writes for a substantial portion of the person's livelihood or for substantial financial gain.

"Compelling reporters to testify, and in particular, compelling them to reveal the identity of their confidential sources, is a detriment to the public interest," Pence said in a statement. "Without the free flow of information from sources to reporters, the public is ill-equipped to make informed decisions."

"As a conservative who believes in limited government, I know the only check on government power in real time is a free and independent press," Pence continued. "The Free Flow of Information Act is not about protecting reporters; it is about protecting the public's right to know."

Nine additional states have passed shield laws since 2005, when Pence and Boucher first proposed the bill. Currently, 40 states and the District of Columbia have such laws.

The Pence announcement came a day after the Obama administration trumpeted its commitment to open government. In 2009, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to have his administration publicly support a shield law.

This could be the final chance at passing the shield law for Pence, who has announced he will run for Indiana governor next year instead of seeking a seventh term in the House of Representatives. Pence said he believes "bipartisan majorities exist in the Congress sufficient to send this bill to the president for his signature."