The media need to press their legislators and try to get the ear of the president on the issue of a federal shield law that has gotten bogged down in the Senate.
That was the message from one of the co-sponsors of the bill, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) at a Media Institute dinner in Washington Thursday. Boucher, who is chairman of the House Communications Subcommittee, was the recipient of the institute's Freedom of Speech Award for his support of the shield law, for which he twice helped secure passage in the House.
Boucher said he was disappointed in the president's stand on what he indicated was a key element in the Free Flow of information Act, which provides a limited protection to journalists from being compelled to identify their sources.
The administration has problems with a provision of the bill that allows federal judges, in cases where the
government claims an exemption, to decide whether the public's interest requires disclosure of that source or whether the source should be kept confidential to promote the free flow of information to the public.
"Who better to decide that than federal judges," he said, pointing out that the issue was not even debated in the House.
Boucher said he "strongly believed" in that balancing test in every instance of a claimed exemption -- for things like avoiding bodily harm of protecting national security.
"Let me encourage you to get, perhaps a little more involved in this process. Have some conversations with members of the Senate. Use your opportunities with members of the White House staff and perhaps even the president if you have a chance to talk to him to encourage him to support a balancing test in every instance," he said.
Boucher said he was, "somewhat disappointed that the White House has not been more supportive of using the balancing test in these critical instances."
He said that issue is where the bill was going to be decided.
"This is where the rubber meets the road and we need to preserve that balancing test," he said. His audience included the soon-to-be president of the National Association of Broadcasters Gordon Smith, as well as lobbyists from NBC, ABC, Fox, and various attorneys, industry executives, legislators and others.
Boucher also suggested that next year the institute might want to honor his co-sponsor, Mike Pence (R-Ind.), himself a former broadcaster and a driving force behind the bill.
Boucher gave a shout-out to the presenter of his award, Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, for talking to legislators and getting pro-shield law editorials in papers across the country.
For the fourth time in as many weeks, a markup of the shield law, actually both the House and Senate versions, was scheduled in the Senate Judiciary committee Thursday (Oct. 15) but, again, no action was taken.
Boucher is familiar with reporters' privileges from his days of debating the issue in moot court competitions during law school, but it became more than an academic exercise after reporters, including Judith Miller, Matt Cooper and more than a dozen others were subpoenaed by the federal courts in 2004 and 2005 he decided to take action, said Dalglish.