Progress on shield bill slows in Senate Judiciary Committee

Cristina Abello | Reporter's Privilege | Quicklink | September 17, 2009

Media advocates were anticipating a long-awaited vote on the Senate version of the federal shield law during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this morning, but progress faltered as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and other committee Republicans effectively “stonewalled” progress on the bill, committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a press release.

The Free of Flow Information Act, bipartisan legislation that would establish a reporter's privilege to protect sources, passed the same committee in the previous Congress, and the House of Representatives passed a similar version of the shield bill in March. The judiciary committee was poised to seriously consider amendments to the bill today, but senators including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.) argued that the bill's proposed balancing test was flawed. The test, which would be used to weigh national security concerns against the media's First Amendment interests, some argued, would be applied too subjectively by the judicial branch.

Chief sponsor Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he discussed the legislation on Wednesday with Attorney General Eric Holder, and that the Department of Justice was willing to compromise, the Associated Press reported. Schumer introduced amendments to the bill that were adopted by the committee, related to the national security balancing test and who is covered under the bill. The text of the amendments was not made available immediately.

“I am disappointed that the Committee was unable to approve the Free Flow of Information Act,” Leahy said in a statement.  “This legislation is supported by more than 70 news media and journalism organizations.  Senator Schumer, Senator Specter and I have worked in good faith with the administration, the intelligence community, and with any interested senator, to craft a consensus, compromise bill to establish a federal shield for reporters.  Regrettably, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee today missed an opportunity to work constructively to address this legislation.”

The bill has been on the Committee’s executive agenda, awaiting final mark-up by the committee, for five months.