Senate Considers Media Shield
Senate Considers Media Shield (AP – WaPo)
The Senate Judiciary Committee, before turning to President Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, is hearing what the administration thinks about jailing reporters who refuse to reveal their sources. The testimony from Deputy Attorney General James Comey comes as the panel considers a bill that would protect reporters from being imprisoned by federal courts.
Two weeks ago, a federal judge sent New York Times reporter Judith Miller to jail for refusing to divulge who told her Valerie Plame was a CIA officer. Miller never actually wrote a story about Plame. Pointing to broader implications, the special prosecutor in the Plame case, Patrick Fitzgerald, said earlier this month that “we can’t have 50,000 journalists” making their own decisions about whether to reveal sources.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Richard Lugar and Rep. Mike Pence, both Indiana Republicans, would stop short of giving reporters absolute immunity. In response to a request from the Justice Department, the sponsors added an exception for cases where source identification is essential for protecting national security. “It simply gives journalists certain rights and abilities to seek sources and report appropriate information without fear of intimidation or imprisonment, much as, in the public interest, we allow psychiatrists, clergy and social workers to maintain confidences,” Pence said in prepared testimony.
It’s the federal court’s power that the Senate panel wants to examine. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have such “shield” laws, but there is no set of standards that applies in federal courts.
This would have little practical effect, as the bill’s provisions sound very close to existing Justice Department policy. Still, formalizing this issue into law makes sense. Of course, most applications of the shield law will naturally be at the state and local level, where this law would not apply.