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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTop Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties Lawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens Trump administration denies temporary immigrant status to Venezuelans in US MORE (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamScarborough sounds alarm on political 'ethnic cleansing' after Trump rally The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants GOP rattled by Trump rally MORE (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 CornynJohn CornynGOP wants commitment that Trump will sign budget deal Hillicon Valley: Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract | FTC weighs updating kids' internet privacy rules | Schumer calls for FaceApp probe | Report says states need more money to secure elections Senators introduce legislation to boost cyber defense training in high school MORE (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 FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinTop Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations Hillicon Valley: Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency plan | Trump vows to 'take a look' at Google's ties to China | Google denies working with China's military | Tech execs on defensive at antitrust hearing | Bill would bar business with Huawei MORE (D-Calif.) and Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations Senate approves long-delayed tax treaties in win for business MORE (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.