Aug. 2, 2007 · For the first time ever, the House Judiciary Committee has voted to send a federal reporter’s shield bill out of committee and to the floor of the House for a vote.
Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) presided over a markup session Wednesday that ended with a vote that passed the bill to the House. At the same time, Conyers announced that many committee members would form an ad-hoc working group to make additional changes to the bill before it goes to the floor for a full vote.
A similar bill is still being considered in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Wednesday’s House committee session lasted nearly three hours and saw the introduction of several proposed amendments to the bill.
Citing broad bipartisan support, bill sponsor Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) said “the time has arrived” for a federal shield law and called the proposed version a “carefully balanced piece of legislation.”
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who sponsored the bill with Boucher, followed Boucher’s remarks by saying that “integrity in government is not a Democratic or Republican issue,” and that the Free Flow of Information Act is necessary to repair “a tear in the fabric of the First Amendment freedom of the press.”
Both Boucher and Pence stressed that the point of the bill was not to protect the press, but rather to protect the public’s right to know.
The bill would protect reporters from being forced to divulge their confidential sources, with exceptions for information needed to prevent terrorism or significant harm to national security, information that would prevent “imminent death” or significant bodily injury, information relating to a significant trade secret, or information relating to leaks of personal or financial information revealed in violation of existing federal laws.
If one of these four exceptions applies, the bill would require a court to balance the public interesting in compelled disclosure against the interest in newsgathering.
The bill also provides a qualified privilege for newsgathering materials and information not related to a confidential source.
After Pence extolled the virtues of the bill and the importance of press freedom, Conyers called Pence’s remarks “one of the finest conservative statements these progressive ears have ever heard.”
Citing his fear that the legislation could extend to “protect tabloids,” ranking Judiciary Committee member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said he would not support the bill. Smith also said that he could not support the bill in part due to the Justice Department’s opposition to the bill.
The committee adopted an amendment that made changes to the language of the bill but no major changes to its structure. For example, the wording in the national security exception was changed from information needed to prevent “imminent and actual harm to the national security” to information that would prevent “an act of terrorism” or other “significant and specified harm to national security.”
The committee also adopted amendments excluding defamation, libel and slander lawsuits from the bill’s protection and extending the national security exception to threats to the United States’ allies.
Even though the committee voted to send the bill to the floor, there was still a substantial amount of disagreement among the members as to the definition of a “journalist.”
Conyers said that these disagreements would be settled by forming a “working group” of Judiciary Committee members to fine-tune the legislation before it goes to the floor.
Although more than 100 different versions of a proposed federal shield law have been introduced in both houses of Congress since the 1970s, none has ever made it out of committee in either the House or the Senate.
(H.R. 2102, Free Flow of Information Act of 2007) — ES