A short history of attempts to pass a federal shield law

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From the Fall 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 9.

Sept. 1972: A few months after the Branzburg case was decided and while incidents of FBI surveillance of journalists are coming to light, Congress begins considering a federal shield law. At least six bills are introduced quickly, and 65 would be introduced in the next year.

Reps. Charles Whalen Jr. (R-Ohio) and William Moorhead (D-Pa.) propose a shield law that would apply to news media, the press and freelancers. Whalen’s bill is based on one suggested by the Joint Media Committee — a group of key media associations. The bill would provide a qualified privilege against forced disclosure of “any information or the source of any information procured for publication or broadcast.”

1974: The American Bar Association rejects, by a 157-to-122 vote, a shield law for reporters, and votes against supporting any form of “newsmen’s” privilege. Opponents said newsmen were putting themselves “above the law” and argued that the immunity would extend to the underground press and “college dropouts” claiming to be journalists.

Jan. 1977: The International Executive Board of The Newspaper Guild adopts a statement on “Grand Jury Reform and Reporter Privilege” urging Congress to adopt legislation that would help reporters resist grand jury subpoenas. The statement supports bills introduced by Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Joshua Eilberg (D-Pa.) and Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.) that would, among other things: limit jail terms for contempt to 6 months instead of 18 months; make it impossible to jail reporters a second time for refusing to answer the same questions; require that grand juries vote on news media subpoenas; and require prosecutors to present full justification for such subpoenas.

Aug. 1978: Rep. Philip Crane (R-Ill.) introduces a bill prohibiting any federal, state or other governmental authority from issuing search warrants and subpoenas on journalists.

Sept. 1978: After jailing of New York Times reporter Myron Farber, Rep. Richard Ottinger (D-N.Y.) introduces bill granting journalists the right to withhold identity of confidential sources and information received from those sources.

Jan. 1979: Rep. Bill Green (R-N.Y.) introduces proposed federal shield law granting absolute privilege against disclosing “any news, or sources of any news” even to grand juries.

Jan. 1981: Crane reintroduces his shield bill.

July1987: Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) circulates draft of federal shield law to media groups for comments, noting that previous efforts failed in part for lack of concensus by the media on what a federal shield law should include. Reid’s proposal would prevent any court, grand jury, administrative or legislative body of the United States or a state to require a journalist to disclose any news, the source of any news or any unpublished information. Includes exception for defamation and criminal defense.