Shield law clears Senate committee hurdle

A bill that would permit journalists to withhold their sources from federal prosecutors except in cases involving national security cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

The so-called federal shield law, sponsored by Sens. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), arrives after months of political wrangling over how expansive the bill's protections might be -- a fight that at one point threatened to scuttle the legislation.

 “Today has been a long time coming. The bill creates a fair standard to protect the public interest, journalists, the news media, bloggers, prosecutors and litigants,” Specter said. “This marks a major improvement over current procedures where journalists have been threatened, fined and jailed for appropriately protecting sources."

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Under the landmark bill -- versions of which have long existed in most states -- journalists could not be required to disclose their sources in federal court, except in cases in which their silence threatens state secrets or domestic security.

However, that definition of what, exactly, constituted a "national security" threat proved to be an early point of consternation between President Barack Obama and key Senate Democrats.

The White House wanted a standard that would have offered a slight advantage to federal prosecutors, while Democrats feared that would only threaten the fourth estate's independence. But as negotiations grew tense, threatening to kill the bill for the second year in a row, both sides moderated their needs and compromised.

"After months of talks, we’ve struck the right balance between the national security concerns and the public’s right to know," Schumer said in a statement. "This bill will ensure a free press, which is a cornerstone of our democracy."

The revised proposal also serves a key victory to bloggers, who were included in the Free Flow of Information Act's definition of "journalist."

Previous iterations of the federal shield law did not extend those protections to writers who were self-employed or otherwise unaffiliated with established publications. It is unclear whether House lawmakers, however, would preserve the Senate's language once the bill reaches the lower chamber's floor.