A federal shield bill that would give reporters a qualified privilege from being forced to disclose confidential sources or information passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday and is set to go before the full Senate for a vote.
The bill, known as the Free Flow of Information Act of 2013, passed on a 13-5 vote. Supporters of the bill said they hope to see it move quickly to the Senate.
“We hope with the strong vote out of committee there is momentum for action on the Senate floor,” said Paul Boyle, senior vice president of public policy at the Newspaper Association of America.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), would protect journalists from being forced by the court to reveal sources. The protections have some exceptions, such as where the information would prevent an act of terrorism, death, kidnapping or bodily harm.
Senators spent the majority of the two-hour hearing discussing who the shield law would cover. For example, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said website commenters should not be considered journalists and covered under this bill.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who voted against the bill, said he doesn't think Congress should be able to define who is and isn't a journalist. The senator likened such an action to licensing journalists, which runs afoul of the First Amendment, he said.
The committee members voted to include a clause that even if a person doesn't fit the set definition of a journalist, a judge could extend the privilege to him or her. The committee also voted to remove the requirement from the amendment that would have limited the bill's application to “salaried” journalists, to account for freelance journalists.
Cornyn and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) debated the First Amendment protections already allotted to the press, at which point Whitehouse said it was up to Congress to decide where privilege is allowed.
There is no special privilege for the press under the Constitution, so any law Congress passes would be an extra protection and therefore couldn't supress anyone's First Amendment rights by excluding them from the definition in the statute, Whitehouse said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who voted against the bill, said that state shield laws are different from enacting one at the federal level because states do not have the same national security concerns as the federal government. “I’m not in a big rush to pass a bad piece of legislation,” he said.
Sessions referred to the bill as "schizophrenic" and said that it would encourage more leakers. He then introduced an amendment to exclude from the bill information containing leaks of classified information. The amendment was voted down 11-7, with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) calling it “overly broad.”
Two additional amendments proposed by Sessions, as well as two by Cornyn, also failed to pass.
Over 70 news organizations had signed onto a letter supporting the bill, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· Dig.J.Leg.Gd.: The limits of promising confidentiality