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Fed shield law desperately needed

There is not an overwhelming amount of public trust in the federal government these days.

And the Obama Administration has one of the worst records of any administration in decades of aggressively prosecuting leaks and whistleblowers.

The best way for the public to find out what’s going on behind closed doors is to let the media do its work without fear of going to jail for not revealing confidential sources: It’s time for Congress to pass a federal shield law with real teeth.

Late last Thursday night Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) offered an amendment to an appropriations bill for the Justice Department and other agencies to do just that.

According to Sophia Cope, director of government affairs for the National Newspaper Association, it stated:

“None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to compel a journalist or reporter to testify about information or sources that the journalist or reporter states in a motion to quash the subpoena that he has obtained as a journalist or reporter and that he regards as confidential.”

The amendment passed with the support of 172 Democrats and 53 Republicans, and the underlying appropriations bill was passed by the House on Friday. If enacted, the amendment would only apply to attempts by the Justice Department or federal prosecutors to obtain confidential information from journalists.

Cope says it’s not clear if the amendment will survive the legislative process when the House and Senate iron out differences between their respective appropriations bills.

Still, we join the NAA in applauding Rep. Grayson for calling attention to the issue of reporters being compelled to reveal their confidential sources, and we urge Congress to pass a comprehensive shield law.

Journalists and their confidential sources continue to be at risk.

In May 2013, it came to light that the Justice Department had secretly seized the communications records of Associated Press and Fox News reporters.

And the Supreme Court just recently declined to hear the appeal of New York Times reporter James Risen, who has been fighting a subpoena for the names of his confidential sources since 2011 and now may face jail time.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte opposed the amendment on the House floor because of jurisdictional issues, saying, “We will continue to work on shield law legislation in the House Judiciary Committee, which has passed out forms of shield law in the past.”

However, Cope says, the House Judiciary Committee has yet to consider a comprehensive shield bill (HR 1962) in the 113th Congress (which would apply to anyone who might seek confidential information from a journalist: the government, special prosecutors, criminal defendants or private litigants).

The Senate Judiciary Committee, on the other hand, passed its own version of the shield bill (S. 987) last September on a 13-5 bipartisan vote. Senate leadership should bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote as soon as possible. Are you listening, Harry Reid?

Both chambers need to come together and agree to a strong shield bill this year, before the 113th Congress ends – that protects the public’s right to know by codifying reasonable standards to protect journalists and their confidential sources.