A group of senators announced on Wednesday that they would renew their push for federal legislation to limit the ability of federal authorities to compel journalists to reveal information about or obtained from confidential sources, after the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would tighten its own standards for when to seek such information.
The bill, the Free Flow of Information Act of 2013, is an updated version of a reporters’ shield bill that was considered in 2009. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) reintroduced the bill in mid-May of this year, co-sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). The Obama administration asked Schumer to reintroduce the bill after the U.S. Justice Department disclosed that it had obtained call records for more than 20 telephone extensions of Associated Press journalists.
The bill generally would prevent federal authorities from compelling journalists to identify confidential sources or reveal information obtained under a promise of confidentiality, unless a court determines that the government has exhausted all reasonable alternative sources of the information and the government’s need for the information outweighs the public interest in the free flow of information.
On July 12, the Justice Department announced that it was tightening its guidelines on when DOJ attorneys can seek to obtain journalists’ records or to compel journalists to disclose information. The report also voiced support for congressional efforts to enact a reporters’ shield law.
In a press release issued July 17, Schumer, Graham, and five of the bill’s other co-sponsors — three Democrats and two Republicans — announced they would seek to amend their pending reporters’ shield bill in order to codify some of these new DOJ guidelines into law. In particular, the revised bill would limit the government’s ability to obtain business records about journalists from third-party service providers such as credit-card companies. This change would broaden the current bill’s provision restricting attempts to compel communications providers to disclose journalists’ records. In the current bill, that provision requires affected journalists to be notified of the government’s request, but a court can delay that notice for 45 days and extend the delay in 45-day increments. The revised bill, like the new DOJ guidelines, will allow only one extension, thus requiring that journalists be notified within 90 days.
[Covington & Burling represents the Newspaper Association of America, which advocates passage of a federal shield law.]