House Passes Federal Shield Bill

Dave Aeikens at SPJ and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press report that last night the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 985, the House version of a federal shield law that would provide journalists a qualified privilege against disclosing the identity of sources and turning over information obtained or created in the course of newsgathering.  According to the Reporters Committee, the bill passed by a "voice vote under a suspension of the rules, a typical procedure used to pass non-controversial bills."

The text of the bill is the same as the 2007 version (H.R. 2102), which passed the House by a huge margin in October 2007, but failed to become law when its Senate counterpart died without a vote at the end of the legislative session.  (For details on the previous bills, see previous CMLP posts here, here, here, and here.)  Like its predecessor, H.R. 985 limits coverage of the shield law to journalists who make significant money from their activities:

The term "covered person" means a person who regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, or publishes news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public for a substantial portion of the person's livelihood or for substantial financial gain and includes a supervisor, employer, parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of such covered person. 

As Michael Lindenberger recently noted, this limitation could be an obstacle to protection for "many bloggers, student journalists and even those who freelance for magazines or papers that pay poorly."  

What's next?  The Senate will consider S. 448, its version of the bill, which contains no such limitation based on financial remuneration.  Assuming the Senate passes S. 448, the two houses of Congress will then have to straighten out their differences through conference committee.  We're hoping that the Senate's functional definition of who's covered -- anyone who gathers, prepares, or disseminates newsworthy information for dissemination to the public -- carries the day in the end.  This functional approach better reflects the diverse character of the new media ecosystem, and better conforms to the goal of promoting the public's access to information, rather than protecting a certain category of professionals. 


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