House GOP and Dems Agree on Need for More Protection

DOJ mistakes put Congress on the side of the media.

The screen on a phone console at the AP.

The Department of Justice's secret subpoena of the phone records of Associated Press reporters has given Congress momentum to rehash its quest for a federal shield law.

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Forty states have shield laws that protect reporters from revealing their sources and if a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House of Representatives has its way, the federal government will have one too.

Recent disclosures that the Obama administration has taken aggressive steps to subpoena telephone and email records of reporters have put Congress in an unfamiliar place — on the media's side.

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The Department of Justice's secret subpoena of the phone records of Associated Press reporters in an attempt to find the source of a leak of an anti-terror campaign and revelations that officials were tracking a Fox News Reporter have given Congress the momentum it needed to rehash its quest for a federal shield law.

 

Reps. Ted Poe, R-Texas, John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., Trey Radel, R-Fla., Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., unveiled their bill Wednesday afternoon a week after Attorney General Eric Holder and the White House announced they supported extending protections for the media.

"As someone who worked as a journalist for almost 20 years, this issue is close to my heart," Radel said in a statement. "Americans should not fear a heavy handed government when thy want to speak out on an injustice, be a whistleblower or shine light where there is darkness."

The Free Flow of Information Act would give reporters a privilege to protect the identity of their sources except in very limited national security circumstances where a judge rules that the public safety risks outweigh the public's right to know.

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The bill would require the federal government to seek permission from a court before issuing a subpoena for a reporter's personal records.

The legislation is modeled after the bill that won unanimous approval in the House in 2009, but was then locked up in the Senate after the internet website WikiLeaks released classified information on the War in Afghanistan.

Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have also reinvigorated the effort on the Senate side, making a push for similar legislation.

Gabe Rottman, a policy advisor at the American Civil Liberties Union, says the Senate bill has a broader national security exception that is of concern.

"Something is better than nothing," Rottman says. "But the reporter shield law is more important in circumstances dealing with the military or national security or intelligence activities because the government has vast authority to keep what it is doing secret. If it weren't for so-called leaks of classified information, we would never have known about the Pentagon Papers or black sites. We would never have known about the targeted [drone] killing program."

The efforts, however, will not necessarily go smoothly.

In the past, members in the Senate have voiced concern with extending reporter rights any further. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., told Politico last week that he's concerned that foreign media reporting stateside would be included under the law.

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