The House of Representatives defied a White House veto threat on Tuesday and overwhelmingly passed legislation that would protect reporters from being jailed for refusing to reveal confidential sources.
By a vote of 398 to 21, the House sent to the Senate a bill that would prohibit prosecutors from forcing reporters to reveal confidential sources, except under limited circumstances.
News organizations say a shield law is needed to prevent reporters from becoming de facto arms of law enforcement.
Abuses of power are less likely to come to light if reporters cannot promise confidentiality to whistle-blowers, congressional backers from both parties said.
The bill does not offer blanket protection. Reporters would have to turn over confidential information if it was needed to stop a terrorist attack, or identify its perpetrator afterward. A court could also force reporters to cooperate if it found that national security had been harmed.
The bill would only cover professional journalists who earn money from their news gathering.
A slightly different take from the Washington Post:
The bill would protect news reporters, under most circumstances, from being legally compelled to reveal sources who have requested confidentiality. The protections would apply only to people who earn a significant portion of their livelihoods as journalists. They would not apply in criminal investigations or prosecutions of leaks of classified information that significantly harm national security, unless a judge ruled that the public interest outweighs those concerns. Journalists who are involved in or an eyewitness to a crime would not be protected.
This bill appears likely to be matched by a Senate version that should be very similar.
It’s clear to me that this is a good idea. It’s never been more important to have a free and relatively unfettered press than it is today.
This bill, which will, I predict, survive a Bush veto if one should be brought against it. Hopefully it will enable journalists of today and tomorrow to the nurture sources they need to provide us with the truth.
Fundamentally that is the reason we have hundreds of media outlets in this country – to gather and disseminate information that citizens need and have a right to know. The Free Flow of Information Act should help in that mission.
Bill co-sponsor Mike Pence puts it very well:
“What’s a conservative like me doing passing legislation that would help reporters?” Pence, a former talk-radio host, asked in remarks on the floor. “As a conservative who believes in limited government, I believe the only check on government in real time is the freedom of the press.”
“Without the promise of confidentiality, many important conduits of information about our government will be shut down,” he said, adding that the bill would “put a stitch in what I believe is a tear in the fabric of the Bill of Rights.”
That said, it’s unfortunate that HR 2102 does little to protect writers like me. Neither would it have helped Josh Wolf, a freelance blogger who spent 226 days in jail for refusing to surrender video he shot at an anti-G8 protest in San Francisco.
But in an age dominated by spin, distortion, and outright lies, every little bit helps.