Senate panel advances media shield bill

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday passed legislation to protect journalists from having to cooperate with government investigations but made sure to limit the safeguard to professional news gatherers.

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The legislation, which passed by a 13-5 vote, draws a line between those whom lawmakers view as “real" journalists and citizen bloggers.

People who qualify as “real" reporters under the legislation would receive protection from having to reveal their confidential sources to government prosecutors.

The legislation gained political momentum after it was revealed earlier this year that the Justice Department had secretly obtained the phone records for The Associated Press in an attempt to discover who had provided classified information to the news organization.

Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the bill's sponsors, argued it would protect journalists and their sources from government intimidation but exempt those who attempt to obtain government secrets without with regard to the public’s interest.

“The bill would prohibit demands for protected information (such as confidential source information) from journalists unless a court determines that the public interest is better served by disclosure of the information than by protecting the journalist’s source,” they wrote in a letter to colleagues in May.

Conservatives, however, blasted the legislation for giving Congress power to decide who qualifies as a legitimate journalist.

“The remedy that this legislation seeks to provide is to differentiate between different types of journalists and to determine in the Congress’s mind who’s legitimate and who’s not legitimate,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a critic.

Cornyn said Congress shouldn’t pick and choose who’s protected by the First Amendment.

“The First Amendment makes no such differentiation,” he said. “It talks about a free press, and we would say you’re a member of the free press if you meet certain legislative criteria and if you don’t, you’re not.”

The committee adopted by an amendment sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in a 13-5 vote to set apart people viewed by Congress as legitimate journalists.

The language defines a journalist as someone with a traditional or contractual arrangement with a media outlet for at least three months in the past two years or for at least one year in the past 20 years. It also includes reporters with a substantial track record of freelancing in the past five years, student journalists and persons approved by a federal judge as worthy of protection.

Schumer emphasized at the committee markup Thursday that the agents of foreign powers would be excluded, depriving protections for foreign operatives posing as journalists with Al Jazeera, a broadcaster based in Qatar, or other foreign media groups.

The committee’s action sends the bill to the Senate floor.