Houses passes federal shield bill

Samantha Fredrickson | Reporter's Privilege | Feature | March 31, 2009

A federal shield bill that would give reporters a qualified privilege from revealing confidential sources was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday night.

H.R. 985, known as the Free Flow of Information Act of 2009, was passed by a voice vote under a suspension of the rules, a typical procedure used to pass non-controversial bills. The bill is identical to the bill that was passed in 2007 by a vote of 398 to 21.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va) sponsored the bill with Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind), Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va), and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mi). The sponsors and Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex) all spoke out in favor of the bill.

“This is protecting the public’s right to know,” Pence said during the debate.

Despite the law’s swift passage, there was some criticism of the law during the debate. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex) voiced stern opposition to the bill, saying that there is “no evidence of a need” for a shield law and that the law would improperly “allow reporters to avoid a civic duty.”

In a letter circulated to House members today, Smith urged a rejection of the law.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) also voiced opposition during the debate, arguing that privileges should only protect “skilled” and licensed professions such as priests, doctors and attorneys.

The law 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.