Federal Shield Bill Hearing Set for Sept. 17

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The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the federal shield law bill Sept. 17, according to the Library of Congress' online bill-tracker.

The bill is scheduled to be marked up at the hearing, according to the office of bill sponsor, Rick Boucher (D-Va).

The bill, which passed in the House last March, prevents journalists or their sources from being compelled to testify in federal courts, with carve-outs for national security, cases of imminent harm, and leaks of personal, medical or information related to trade secrets. Though even in those cases a judge would have to balance those interests against the public interest in revealing the information.

Boucher, chairman of the House Communications Subcommittee, said last March after the bill's House passage, "The assurance of confidentiality that reporters give to sources is fundamental to their ability to deliver news on highly contentious matters of broad public interest such as corruption in government or misdeeds in corporations. Without the promise of confidentiality, many inside sources would not reveal the information, and opportunity to take corrective action to address the harms would not arise," he said.

Another big supporter is Indiana Republican Rep. Mike Pence. The bill was not without Republican critics, however, who said it would create a special status for journalists and did not define that term narrowly enough.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), one of the bill's biggest critics and a former reporter himself, said during debate over the bill that the First Amendment already protects journalists, and added that "only" 17 journalists have been jailed in the past 25 years for failing to testify before a grand jury.

He said journalists don't have trouble exposing corruption and injustice without a shield law, and that protecting anonymous sources should never be more important than saving people and lives.

Journalists and some legislators have been trying for two decades to pass a federal shield law, pointing out that virtually every state has some form of journalist protection either in the form of shield laws or precedential court decisions.

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