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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…

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&#146s bill is based on one suggested by the Joint Media Committee &#151 a group of key media associations. The bill would provide a qualified privilege against forced disclosure of &#147any information or the source of any information procured for publication or broadcast.&#148

1974: The American Bar Association rejects, by a 157-to-122 vote, a shield law for reporters, and votes against supporting any form of &#147newsmen&#146s&#148 privilege. Opponents said newsmen were putting themselves &#147above the law&#148 and argued that the immunity would extend to the underground press and &#147college dropouts&#148 claiming to be journalists.

Jan. 1977: The International Executive Board of The Newspaper Guild adopts a statement on &#147Grand Jury Reform and Reporter Privilege&#148 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 &#147any news, or sources of any news&#148 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&#146s 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.