One step forward: Shield Law
So this happened on the first day of August in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee: Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) submitted an amendment to the shield law bill he and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced back in May that actually strengthens the protections contained in the Free Flow of Information Act.
And the committee adopted the amendment.
Great news, but this is no time to get complacent.
Yes, S. 987 has bipartisan support (19 sponsors and counting), but key members of the judiciary committee remain uncommitted or intend to vote against it.
Most troubling is that Sen. Dianne Feinsten (D-Calif.) and co-sponsor Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) want to amend the bill to define who can be a journalist. Feinstein did the same thing the last time a shield bill was before the committee.
The latest Feinstein-Durbin amendment substitutes the word “journalists” wherever the Schumer-Graham bill contains “covered persons.”
You see, the Schumer legislation seeks to protect people engaged in the act of journalism. Feinstein wants to limit the protection to, as she said in committee, “real reporters.”
Specifically, the Schumer bill protects those who gather news and other information of public interest with the primary intent to disseminate the information to the public.
To receive the qualified protection of S. 987, an individual must be found by a court to meet each of these requirements:
- The person regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits or reports about matters of public interest by (a) conducting interviews; (b) directly observing events; or (c) collecting, reviewing, or analyzing original writings, statements, communications, reports, memoranda, records, transcripts, documents, photographs, recordings, tapes, materials, data, or other information.
- The person intended to disseminate news to the public at the beginning of the newsgathering process.
- The person obtains the news or information [being] sought in order to disseminate the news or information by means of print, broadcasting, mechanical, photographic, electronic, or other means.
Feinstein’s amendment, in addition to replacing “covered person” with “journalist,” defines “journalist” as a person who is paid – either salaried, independent contractor or agent – by an entity that disseminates news or information.
Her amendment also includes language about having the intent to disseminate news or information, but it’s pretty clear that under her definition, a lot of people covered by the Schumer bill would be left without the fig leaf that a limited shield law provides.
But this is no time to get despondent.
Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) ended the committee meeting before Feinstein’s or anyone else’s amendment (there are close to 40) could be brought to a vote. The committee will take the bill up again after the August recess.
In the meantime, contact the members of the Judiciary Committee, ask them to vote for the bill as presented by Schumer and to vote against any amendments that weaken it, such as Feinstein’s.
Heck, contact the good senator from California and explain why it’s better to define journalism rather than journalist.
Unfettered access to those in power, a push for government transparency and a vigorous defense of the First Amendment are perhaps more important now than ever before. Join us as we fight for the public’s right to know as an SPJ Supporter. Or, if you’re a journalist, we welcome you to stand with us as a Professional, Student or Retired Member.