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Sponsors urge Congress to enact reporter's shield law

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Confidentiality/Privilege         April 28, 2005    

Sponsors urge Congress to enact reporter’s shield law

  • Senate and House bills that would shield reporters from having to reveal their sources to federal officials would protect the public interest, and will soon be considered in congressional subcommittee hearings, the two senators and two representatives who introduced the measures said today.

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Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) urged the passage of the “Free Flow of Information Act” at a press conference today.

April 28, 2005 — Allowing a free press to report on government activities without fear of being compelled to reveal sources and protecting whistleblowers who disclose wrongdoing would benefit the public, four members of Congress said today in urging their colleagues to support reporter’s shield bills currently before both houses.

Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) reiterated their support for the bills at a press conference on Capitol Hill today. Stressing the bipartisan effort, the four said they are confident a shield law will pass.

A House committee hearing on the bill is scheduled for May 12, and one is expected soon in the Senate. Talks with the White House and Department of Justice have been “constructive, ” the lawmakers said. The Justice Department’s position is important because law enforcement officials often believe shield laws interfere with criminal prosecutions. The department has declined comment on the bill.

Boucher and Pence introduced the “Free Flow of Information Act” in the House in February. Lugar introduced an identical Senate bill the next week. Dodd co-sponsored Lugar’s bill and reintroduced a similar bill he had introduced in the last Congress, which he said today is substantially similar to the Pence and Lugar bills.

“I would humbly offer that if we give people the knowledge, the republic will be saved,” Pence said as he started the press conference. “The media is the only entity in America that has complete freedom to hold government accountable. For this reason, the press needs certain protections so they can do their jobs without fear of retribution or prosecution.

“Compelling reporters to testify, and in particular, compelling them to reveal the identity of their confidential sources, is a detriment to the public interest. Without the promise of confidentiality, many important conduits of information about our government will be shut down.”

Dodd stressed that the bill would not create a special benefit for reporters. “This is not about granting a special privilege to the Fourth Estate, but about protecting citizens” and their right to know what the government is doing, he said.

“This is about protecting the public’s right to know,” Boucher echoed. “I would prefer that the First Amendment be read to provide this right, but unfortunately, the courts have not done that.”

Boucher has been encouraged to hear from colleagues that “the time has come” for a federal law protecting newsgathering, he said.

Dodd pointed out that the bill would establish a uniform standard for protecting newsgathering in the federal courts in a way that is consistent with the law in most states, while also balancing the legitimate needs of law enforcement against the public interest.

“Imagine what would happen if citizens could not come forward” to reveal government misconduct, he said. “Serious journalism will cease to exist.”

“When the public’s right to know is threatened, all other public rights are threatened,” Dodd added.

Lugar’s enthusiasm for the issue comes from his work both as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and from his time as a school board member and later a mayor, during which he learned first-hand about the importance of a free press, he said.

Lugar emphasized that the foreign relations committee has long stressed the importance of a free press and of protection for whistleblowers to foreign countries that seek to establish new governments. And, he said, as other news accounts have recently described, “Mozambique may have better protection for whistleblowers than the United States, because the State Department didn’t wait for Congress to enact a shield law.”

His experience with local government showed him that any reformers who want to fix problems with the government must rely on whistleblowers to point out where the problems are. “To be deprived of this would be catastrophic,” he said.

Lugar also pointed out that public interest in the issue is high because of what is happening to a number of reporters, particularly Time magazine’s Matt Cooper and Judith Miller of The New York Times , who have been found in criminal contempt of court for refusing to reveal their sources in an investigation into who leaked the name of a CIA operative to the press. Lawyers for the two journalists are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case.

“The public’s attention has been riveted like never before,” Boucher said.

(The Free Flow of Information Act; H.R. 581, S. 340)GL

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