Progress on shield bill

Good news on the Shield Law front over the past week.

On Wednesday (7/17), a bipartisan group of senators led by New York Democrat Charles Schumer and South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham said they’re going to push for a Shield Law that enshrines revisions to Justice Department policies announced by Attorney General Eric Holder on July 12.

Holder’s revisions to DOJ guidelines would make it harder for prosecutors to obtain journalists’ phone records without advance notice.

The bill Schumer, Lindsay and their colleagues announced Wednesday would go a bit further, ensuring that an impartial judge reviews government attempts to compel journalists and news agencies or third parties, such as phone companies and internet providers, before the Justice Department tries to obtain them.

“In many ways, our bill is tougher than the new [DOJ] guidelines,” Schumer said at a press conference, “but the DOJ has smartly proposed new ideas that would offer additional protections to journalists while carefully balancing that need against national security.”

Holder’s policy changes came after various journalism groups, including SPJ, voiced concerns about the Justice Department’s seizure of the AP’s phone records and a Fox News reporter’s emails. In a letter to Holder in June, SPJ expressed serious concerns that the DOJ wasn’t following its own guidelines for dealing with demands for information from journalists in the government’s investigations of leaks.

After meeting with and hearing from a slew of journalism groups, Holder surprised me and actually strengthened the guidelines.

Of particular note was the Attorney General’s statement of principles: “As an initial matter, it bears emphasis that it has been and remains the Department’s policy that members of the news media will not be subject to prosecution based solely on newsgathering activities.”

The policy changes Holder outlined seek to strike “the appropriate balance between two vital interests,” he said in his report to the President: “protecting the American people by pursuing those who violate their oaths through unlawful disclosures of information and safeguarding the essential role of a free press in fostering government accountability and an open society.”

Schumer, Lindsay and shield bill co-sponsors Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Roy Blount, R-Mo., and Jonny Isakson, R-Ga., echoed that sentiment in Wednesday’s press conference announcing their intent to submit a “tougher bill” than either the previous bill that languished in the Senate three years ago or Holder’s revised guidelines.

“We’ve struck the right balance here between national security and protecting those who cover government,” Graham said after noting that “guidelines are not gonna cut it in the 21st century.

“We need a statute, a law that transcends administrations.”

Other societies wish they had the kind of reporting on government that Americans have, Graham said.

“We have it, we need to protect it, and quite frankly, cherish it,” he said.

Amen.

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