Three lawmakers announced this week they were planning to revive legislation establishing a federal reporter shield law, just days after it was revealed the U.S. Justice Department secretly obtained two months’ worth of phone records from the Associate Press.
Obama Administration officials asked Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to reintroduce the Free Flow of Information Act, a previously stalled measure designed to protect reporters from punishment for refusing to identify confidential sources.
Schumer introduced a similar bill in 2009, but it stalled in the Senate amid the controversy over WikiLeaks, a website that disclosed thousands of secret government documents related to the war on terror. A spokesman for the New York lawmaker said Wednesday that Schumer would reintroduce the version of the Senate bill that was approved by the Judiciary Committee that year.
Rep. John Conyers, Jr., the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, also announced plans to reintroduce a version of the reporter shield law that passed the House in 2009.
“This federal ‘press shield’ bill would require the government to show cause before they may compel disclosure of this sort of information from or about a news media organization,” Conyers said Wednesday during an oversight committee hearing where Attorney General Eric Holder testified. “It is a common sense measure, with analogs in 49 states and the District of Columbia.”
Similarly, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) introduced his own variant of the Free Flow of Information Act on Tuesday that would place limits on the ability of government officials to compel members of the media to disclose information.
Poe sought to compare the actions of the Justice Department in obtaining the AP phone records to Soviet-era tactics designed to suppress free speech in the name of preserving state secrets.
“The state-secret provision was so broad the Soviet press and speech were gagged and shackled," Poe said in a House floor speech on Tuesday. “Now we learn that our Department of Justice improperly seized without notice phone records of over 100 Associated Press journalists — all in the name of national security concerns.”
“To me, this is a clear violation of the spirit and letter of the First Amendment. These actions border on the Soviet method of legalizing these freedoms but never allowing them. So it's time to revisit U.S. law and require in all cases judicial review where these types of records are seized.”
The sudden push to reintroduce legislation for a new federal reporter shield law comes as the White House is facing heavy criticism this week for a decision by Justice Department officials to subpoena more than 20 separate work and personal telephone lines belonging to reporters at the AP over a two-month period.
Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole responded to the controversy on Tuesday by defending the secret subpoenas as an appropriate measure designed to aid the department’s investigation into who leaked classified information concerning a CIA operation in Yemen that disrupted an al Quaeda plot to blow up a U.S.-bound airplane.
Media organizations and lawmakers have been weighing in on the controversy all week, publicly condemning the department for its actions.
"The scope of this action calls into question the very integrity of Department of Justice policies toward the press and its ability to balance, on its own, its police powers against the First Amendment rights of the news media and the public’s interest in reporting on all manner of government conduct, including matters touching on national security which lie at the heart of this case," the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote in a letter to the Justice Department on behalf of more than 50 news media organizations.
The Reporters Committee also demanded the Justice Department explain why prosecutors were allowed to "overreach so egregiously in this matter" and that the department disclose if it has served any other pending news media-related subpoenas.