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Federal reporter's shield law proposed

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Confidentiality/Privilege    

Federal reporter’s shield law proposed

  • Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) introduced a bill to protect reporters from revealing their sources in federal courts.

Nov. 22, 2004 — Spurred by the recent spate of reporter subpoenas — including last week’s criminal contempt conviction of Providence, R.I., investigative journalist Jim Taricani — Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) introduced a bill Friday that would bar federal courts from compelling journalists to reveal their sources.

“This legislation is fundamentally about good government and the free and unfettered flow of information to the public,” Dodd said in a statement after introducing the Free Speech Protection Act of 2004.

“The American people deserve access to a wide array of views so that they can make informed decisions and effectively participate in matters of public concern. When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered. The legislation that I am introducing today will protect these rights, and ensure that the government remains open and accountable to its citizens,” he said.

The bill would provide an absolute privilege from disclosing sources whether they are promised confidentiality or not. The bill would provide a limited or qualified privilege to withhold other information except under certain circumstances.

Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have shield laws that protect journalists from revealing their sources in state courts, but no such federal shield law exists. There is significant confusion among the federal courts as to what constitutional privilege exists following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 decision in Branzburg v. Hayes that no privilege exists to withhold confidential sources from a grand jury subpoena.

Dodd’s bill will not be acted on before Congress adjourns this fall, and the bill will have to be introduced again when a Congress reconvenes in January. Even then, Dodd admits the bill will be tough to pass due to resistance by lawmakers to restrict prosecutors during the “war on terror” and declining public opinion of the news media, he told the New Haven Register .

Similar attempts in the 1970s and 1980s to pass a federal shield law failed because of a lack of agreement among journalists as to what the laws should include. However, following the recent subpoenas, many news organizations and journalism groups have renewed calls for a federal shield law.

(S. 3020) GP

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