A bill aimed at striking a balance between the First Amendment and National Security is now one step closer to passage, earning the support of White House and Senate leaders.
The “Media Shield Bill” would protect reporters from disclosing the identity of confidential sources unless it is in the interest of national security. The legislature made sure to involve media leaders in drafting the bill, which in turn has helped to generate support from the industry. As the AP reports:
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a member of the media team involved in the negotiations, said they were strongly recommending that the larger media coalition backing reporter protections endorse the agreement.
“I think it is a compromise we can live with and it seems to be a compromise the White House can live with. It’s certainly better than the status quo,” Dalglish said.
The status quo to which Ms. Dalglish refers is the same one that saw former New York Times reporter Judith Miller spend three months in jail for refusing to identify her source in the Valerie Plame leak case. Ms. Miller was freed only after her source, Scooter Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney‘s Chief of Staff, gave her permission to reveal his identity. Libby would later be jailed himself for the leak before his sentence was communted by then-President George W. Bush.
The bill also makes headway in recognizing new media outlets, extending “coverage to unpaid bloggers engaged in gathering and disseminating news information.” This is a major win for the blogosphere as the legislation would define journalists by the work they produce, rather than the organization that signs their paychecks. This marked a reversal from the bill that reached the Senate in September, when Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) specifically excluded protection for bloggers and new media journalists.
The Media Shield Bill hopes to avoid future First Amendment controversies by allowing federal judges to apply a balancing test between the public’s right to know and the government’s duty to protect the public. This balancing test, however, would be dismissed if the government could prove that, “forcing the reporter to identify a source would help prevent or mitigate a future terrorist attack or other future acts that are ‘likely to cause significant and articulable harm to national security.’”
The bill represents the first effort to shield reporters in federal court, although the media has enjoyed such protections in lower courts.
No federal law shields reporters who refuse to disclose confidential sources even though 37 states and the District of Columbia have laws providing legal protection.
The original Media Shield Bill passed the House of Representatives in March, but was stalled in Senate committee after the White House, prosecutors and intelligence advisors expressed concern about the bill’s impact on national security. Friday’s compromise does not guarantee passage, but it does get the ball rolling again.
Ms. Dalglish is not counting her chickens just yet:
“This is a huge deal, but it’s not a done deal, and quite honestly, until all of the media coalition members sign off on it, it’s not a deal.”
The White House is a bit more optimistic:
“We have been engaged with members of the Senate and the media to craft legislation that protects the confidentiality of reporters’ sources and gives the courts the power to decide whether the disclosure of such information is ever necessary in the interests of national security or other imperatives,” [White House spokesman Ben] LaBolt said. “The President looks forward to signing it into law.”