Shield Law to Protect Journalist Sources

On March 31, when the House passed the Free Flow of Information Act (H.R. 985) to protect the identities of reporters' confidential sources, bill sponsors Reps. Rick Boucher (D-VA) and Mike Pence (R-IN) said it was "a major victory for the public's right to know" and "reaffirmed our nation's commitment to a free and independent press."

Federal "media shield" legislation is sorely needed. Each year, scores of criminal and civil subpoenas seeking confidential information -- including the names of sources promised confidentiality - are served on journalists. Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia have either shield laws or a common law privilege protecting the disclosure of a source's identity. But because of conflicting court opinions and the absence of a media shield law, there is no uniform standard in federal court. Inconsistent court opinions are not only undermining state laws, but are chilling the flow of information to the public as sources -- including whistleblowers -- are unsure of the rules of the road. If potential sources, including government and corporate whistleblowers, fear reporters may be forced to reveal their identities, these sources will be "chilled," and the public will lose the ability to hold institutions accountable.

The Free Flow of Information Act does not confer a special status upon the press. Rather, it sets reasonable standards for when journalists can be compelled to disclose the identities of confidential sources in federal proceedings, and includes exceptions for national security andother vital interests that are important for effective law enforcement and the administration of justice.

In light of the broad bipartisan support for the House bill, the Senate should waste no time in considering its version (S.448) so that this legislation protecting the public's right to know can finally be enacted.