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Senate Judiciary Committee passes shield bill

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For the first time, the Senate Judiciary Committee today voted to send a federal reporter's shield bill out of committee…

For the first time, the Senate Judiciary Committee today voted to send a federal reporter’s shield bill out of committee and to the Senate floor for a vote. Numerous shield bills were introduced in the 1970s, but none ever made it out of committee.

“Today’s vote is historic,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “The overwhelming vote in favor of the bill demonstrates that reporters have made the case for legally protecting sources.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) presided over a markup session Thursday that ended with a 15-2 vote that sent the bill, S. 2035, to the Senate floor. Leahy noted at the beginning of the debate over the bill that journalists consistently report sensitive and important information from sources who need protection, and it was time for the law to recognize the valuable function they play in a democracy.

The bill provides a qualified privilege that can be overcome if “all reasonable alternative sources” of the testimony or documents have been exhausted, the information is essential to a case, and that “nondisclosure of the information would be contrary to the public interest.”

The bill also allows for exceptions to the reporter’s privilege in cases of eyewitness observations of criminal or tortious conduct; to prevent death, kidnapping or substantial bodily harm; and to prevent terrorist activity or significant harm to the national security.

The bill faces an uncertain future on the Senate floor as critics, including the Bush administration contend that it would impair the government’s ability to discover leaks that pose a risk to national security, even with the national security exception.

The bill’s chief sponsors in the Senate include Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) and Richard Luger (R-Ind.)

The text of the bill (before the addition of amendments from today’s markup hearing) can be found at: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c110:S.2035: