By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
The House yesterday overwhelmingly passed first-ever federal protections for journalists pressured to reveal confidential sources, as lawmakers from both parties backed legislation that advocates for the news media have sought for a generation.
The bill, whose sponsors include conservative Republican Mike Pence (Ind.), House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), was the first reporter shield law to make it to a House vote in 30 years and more than 100 attempts. President Bush threatened to veto the bill, saying the protections it would afford "could severely frustrate -- and in some cases completely eviscerate -- the federal government's ability to investigate acts of terrorism and other threats to national security."
Sponsors and supporters of the Free Flow of Information Act say it would provide important federal safeguards against a growing trend toward calling journalists into court in order to unmask confidential sources. The District and 49 states have versions of the protections, but there are none in federal law.
The measure passed with a veto-proof vote of 398 to 21. The Senate version of the bill, introduced by Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 4 but has not been scheduled for a vote in the full Senate.
"What's a conservative like me doing passing legislation that would help reporters?" Pence, a former talk-radio host, asked in remarks on the floor. "As a conservative who believes in limited government, I believe the only check on government in real time is the freedom of the press.
"Without the promise of confidentiality, many important conduits of information about our government will be shut down," he said, adding that the bill would "put a stitch in what I believe is a tear in the fabric of the Bill of Rights."
The bill would protect news reporters, under most circumstances, from being legally compelled to reveal sources who have requested confidentiality. The protections would apply only to people who earn a significant portion of their livelihoods as journalists. They would not apply in criminal investigations or prosecutions of leaks of classified information that significantly harm national security, unless a judge ruled that the public interest outweighs those concerns. Journalists who are involved in or an eyewitness to a crime would not be protected.
An amendment adopted yesterday closed a potential loophole by excluding from protection anyone on a terrorism watch list or employed by a terrorist organization.
The Senate version of the bill would provide more limited protection of confidential-source information.
Rep. Lamar Smith (Tex.), ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, opposed the measure, echoing Justice Department concerns that "this legislation will impede its efforts to conduct its investigations and prosecute criminals" and adding: "No one should be above the law, not even the press."
The measure attracted support from more than 50 news media organizations, including The Washington Post, which lobbied hard for the bill. In remarks on the floor, Democrats cited a list of investigative stories that would not have been possible without confidential sources, including Watergate, contracting abuses in Iraq and the mistreatment of veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"This is a 'pinch me' day," said Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which was founded 37 years ago to push for a shield law.
Both the House and Senate bills "go out of their way to balance national security concerns, and go out of their way to identify who would be covered," she said.