WASHINGTON – Senators once again failed to vote on a bill that would give journalists more protection for refusing to reveal information,such as confidential sources.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday,members discussed the Free Flow of Information Act of 2009,also known at the federal shield law bill,but did not bring the bill to a vote as had been planned.
“I would hope we move quickly to move this bill,” sad Sen. Arlen Specter,D-Pa.,the bill's main sponsor.
Republican senators introduced several amendments that would shift more burden of proof onto journalists to say why they are refusing to provide information about their sources when asked to do so before a grand jury or in court.
The committee voted down two of those amendments.
Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy,D-Vt.,advised senators to make a bipartisan effort to craft a manageable list of amendments or he warned that the bill could be sent directly to the full Senate without committee approval.
Republican lawmakers argued that the language of the bill is still not “perfect,” while Democrats said the bill is already a compromise from the original legislation that would have given journalists more protection. The compromise version provides more power to the government to force reporters to turn over information related to national security.
“If you can't vote for this bill,then you don't really want any protection for journalists at all,” Sen. Chuck Schumer,D-N.Y.,said.
There is no federal shield law. The District of Columbia and 29 states have shield law protections. Another four states have some protections for journalists,and 17 have no form of a shield law.
Earlier this month,the Obama administration released a letter signed by Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair in support of the revised bill. Some Republican senators still say the act could compromise national security.
“I feel like we do have a responsibility to national defense,” Sen. Jeff Sessions,R-Ala.,said.
Sessions criticized how the press reacted to the recent shootings in Fort Hood,Texas,saying that information has leaked that shouldn't have. He said there has been too much speculation by the press on the incident and not enough facts have been presented.
Leahy said journalists should not be punished for doing their jobs.
“Go after the leakers,don't go after the press,” he said.
Leahy said he will vote in favor of a federal shield law.
“I'm not saying let's go after the media. I'm saying let's keep the law that we have,” Sessions said.
Democrats said the bill is an attempt to “modernize” laws that protect journalists.
Kevin Smith,president of the Society of Professional Journalists,said in an interview after the hearing that news organizations and free-press advocates have been working on a federal shield law for five years.
Republican senators “need to stop dragging their feet on this issue,” he said.
“We're familiar with the concerns that have always been voiced about national security,” Smith said. “The press is aware of its responsibility. It's not going to openly reveal information that's going to create problems and jeopardize citizens.”
Smith called the Republicans' argument for national defense a “red herring” and said he hopes that the bill is brought to the Senate floor soon.
The committee will take up the shield law again Dec. 3.