Friday, September 18, 2009

UPDATE: Senate Version of Federal Shield Law 'Stonewalled'

WASHINGTON - JULY 21:  Senate Judiciary Commit...Image by Getty Images via Daylife
Yesterday's anticipated vote by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on S.B. 448, the "Free Flow of Information Act of 2009" [see "TUOL" 9/17/09] was derailed as members from both sides of the aisle complained the proposed shield law protecting journalists' confidential sources in federal courts  endangered national security as written.

The measure was endorsed by 70 journalism organizations, but lacked the backing of key senators, including ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.), who questioned the need for a shield law given that the Justice Dept. had subpoenaed reporters in only 19 instances from 1992-2006. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D.-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, complained the bill's  balancing test, which considers the news media's First Amendment interests on one hand, and national security concerns on the other, was too open to subjective application by judges.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D.-Vt.) issued a press release angrily condemning the Judiciary Committee's inability to report the legislation that would create a qualified privilege for journalists, blaming the seven Republicans on the 19-member committee for "stonewalling" any consideration of amendments to SB 448 that might have resulted in its passage. The amendments were introduced by the bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Charles Schumer (D.-N.Y.) based on his meeting with Atty. Gen. Eric Holder, whom he claimed voiced a willingness to compromise on the national security balancing test.

The bill has been on the Judiciary Committee's executive agenda for five months, but back and forth negotiatons and debate in the end yielded nothing for the full Senate to consider.

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