Legislators are amending the federal shield bill, which was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee in December 2009 but not yet brought up on the floor of the Senate, to expressly exclude websites that publish leaked government documents without editorial content.
In a reaction to foreign website Wikileaks' publication of 75,000 Afghanistan war documents, Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein are now drafting an amendment to exclude such websites from the pending legislation. However, it is not clear that a U.S. federal subpoena could even be served on the website, which bases its operations in Iceland, Sweden and other locations.
“Under the bill, if the federal government could somehow claim jurisdiction over WikiLeaks and issue a subpoena to find out more information about a source, WikiLeaks would not be able to quash the subpoena as there are broad national security exceptions to the protection,” said Paul Boyle, Senior Vice President of the Newspaper Association of America.
The bill, known as the Free Flow of Information Act, would allow a reporter to have a court quash a federal subpoena for source information or materials, with some exceptions. A few senators from both political parties, including Feinstein, had repeatedly expressed reservations about the legislation and how its provisions applied to leakers of classified information.
“Senate sponsors want to shore this up by stating it is not their intention to cover WikiLeaks-type websites that simply publish raw data without editorial oversight,” Boyle said.
WikiLeaks was recently criticized by the United States government for posting the Afghanistan documents and secret army video footage of soldiers on a mission that inadvertently resulted in civilian and journalist deaths. In the past, WikiLeaks has been subject to U.S. court injunctions for posting other documents, which were subsequently lifted.