Spurred by a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court not to hear an appeal by New York Times reporter James Risen – which could result in Risen going to jail or being fined for not naming his source – media organizations stress that now is the time to pass a federal shield bill.
More than 70 news organizations – the Reporters Committee included – sent a letter to the Senate majority and minority leaders earlier this week, urging them to schedule a vote on the shield bill.
“A federal shield law would follow the wisdom of the 48 states and the District of Columbia that provide reasonable protections for journalists and their confidential sources,” the letter said. “Without [a federal shield law], journalists cannot provide the public they serve with the spirited, independent journalism that is the lifeblood of American debate and democracy.”
A federal shield law would offer protections for journalists who are asked to testify in court or to hand over their notes.
Many states have shield laws and offer varying protection: some offer absolute protection for anonymous sources, while others offer only qualified protection, so that a journalist can be forced to testify under certain circumstances (such as when the information cannot be obtained elsewhere and it is essential to the case). The proposed federal shield law would offer a qualified privilege.