Senate Judiciary Committee amends shield bill to strengthen protections, but defers final vote

Jeff Zalesin | Reporter's Privilege | News | August 1, 2013

The Senate Judiciary Committee strengthened the proposed federal shield law today by incorporating some of the Justice Department's recommendations on protecting journalists, but then delayed a final vote on the bill.

Committee members approved a so-called manager’s amendment, proposed by bill sponsor Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), by unanimous consent at a meeting this morning. The committee is expected to return to the shield bill after the Senate’s August recess.

Under the new version of the Free Flow of Information Act of 2013, judges would be involved in any determination that notice of a subpoena for a journalist could be delayed. A judge would also have to approve a 45-day extension of the original 45-day suspension of notice.

The added safeguards came after the Justice Department’s July 12 report on news media policy revisions said that some of the reforms would have to come from Congress. President Obama had directed Attorney General Eric Holder to produce the report amid a public outcry over the department’s secret subpoena of Associated Press telephone records. The Justice Department informed the AP in May that it had subpoenaed records on two months’ worth of phone calls in connection with a leak investigation, giving no advance notice to the wire service.

Sophia Cope, legislative counsel with the Newspaper Association of America, welcomed the changes to the bill.

“We are very happy that the manager’s amendment was adopted by the committee, and we look forward to working with the committee over the coming weeks to get the bill in a place where it’s a strong bill that can be passed by the committee in September,” she said.

Also at today’s committee meeting, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced an amendment to narrow the category of people protected by the shield bill. She suggested that the bill should not cover an organization like WikiLeaks or “a 17-year-old who drops out of high school, buys a website for $5 and starts a blog.”

“This bill is described as a reporter shield bill,” she said. “I believe it should be applied to real reporters.”

Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) ended the meeting before the committee could debate Feinstein’s amendment, but not before Schumer offered a retort to her conservative definition of journalism.

“There are people who do journalism in different ways than they used to,” Schumer said. “They should not be excluded by this bill.”

Amy Zhang contributed to this report.