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Old Objections Hang Over New Push for Media Shield Law

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Poe, left, is one of the members pushing for a media shield law.

Bipartisan momentum is building for legislation that would give reporters new legal protections from government authorities who want them to reveal their confidential sources. But it’s far from clear whether the effort can overcome the objections that derailed similar bills in the Senate in 2007 and 2009.

Reps. Ted Poe, R-Texas, and John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., appeared with a group of lawmakers from both parties Wednesday to announce growing House support for “media shield” legislation (HR 1962) that would create a judicial process to ensure that reporters are not compelled to identify their sources unless certain conditions are met. The conditions include requiring government investigators to prove that “the public interest in compelling disclosure outweighs the public interest in gathering or disseminating news or information.”

Poe and Conyers, members of the Judiciary Committee, said the legislation is a response to recent revelations that the Justice Department took phone call records and other information from reporters with The Associated Press and Fox News as part of broader investigations into government leaks.

The Justice Department’s actions, Poe said, “remind me of the old Soviet-style tactics of spying on the press.” He added that lawmakers from both parties “believe it’s time for Congress to intervene and take action to preserve and protect the First Amendment that we all believe in.”

Conyers, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, said the legislation would protect the constitutional rights of the media and send a strong message that “fishing expeditions” by the Justice Department into the professional dealings of the press “are not in order.”

The House bill has 16 co-sponsors, including 14 members of the Judiciary Committee, ranging from conservative Republican Howard Coble of North Carolina to progressive Democrat Jerrold Nadler of New York. Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., and Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, both signaled Wednesday that they could be supportive of the measure since they backed similar efforts in the past.

Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, said he wasn’t familiar with the details of the Poe-Conyers proposal but noted that Boehner “supported a bill on this topic that passed the House in 2007.” Poe said Wednesday that his legislation is “very similar to the bill in 2007.”

The bipartisan momentum is not limited to the House. In the Senate, Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are co-sponsoring similar media shield legislation at the behest of President Barack Obama, who has been on the defensive regarding the actions of his Justice Department in the AP leaks probe.

Thorny Questions

Bipartisan support for media shield legislation, particularly in the House, is nothing new. The House overwhelmingly passed similar bills in 2007 and 2009 — the latter measure by a voice vote — only to see those bills falter in the Senate.

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