Shield law gains traction
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the federal shield law is moving rapidly through the 111th Congress, given that the shield law effort progressed farther in the 110th Congress than it ever had before.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the federal shield law is moving rapidly through the 111th Congress, given that the shield law effort progressed farther in the 110th Congress than it ever had before. However, as far as surprises go, at least this is a pleasant one: it could take the 111th Congress just four months to equal the success of its predecessors, with the full House of Representatives having passed HR 985 by voice vote on March 31, 2009, and the Senate Judiciary Committee poised to consider S 448 as early as this week.
As much as we would celebrate reaching this legislative apogee, we are also mindful that this is where the real work would begin. We knew that the House was extremely likely to pass HR 985, given the overwhelming support for HR 2102 in the 110th Congress (it passed by a 398-212 margin); we are also confident that the Senate Judiciary Committee will pass S 448, as Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has long been a supporter of a free press and Ranking Minority Member Arlen Specter (R-PA) is the sponsor of this particular bill.
There would be dual hurdles to overcome from this point: (1) getting the measure to the Senate floor and (2) resolving any differences between the House and the Senate versions if the Senate passes S 448. Senate rules make it very easy for a single Senator to put a "hold" on a bill and effectively stop forward progress; one such hold placed by Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) doomed S 2035 in the 110th Congress. The hold was one step too many to overcome on the eve of a historic presidential election.
We remain hopeful that, in the event of another hold on the bill, we can get the required 60 Senators to demand a debate and floor vote on S 448. It is our understanding that the Senate Judiciary Committee may hold a hearing or vote on S 448 soon.
ASNE member support - as always - would greatly help the success of S 448 in the Judiciary Committee; editorials directed at both the Senate and the Administration would be crucial to our efforts on the Senate floor, as we need at least 60 firm commitments in favor of S 448 to ensure that floor time is scheduled and a vote occurs. After that, legal counsel will work with representatives of the more than 70 other organizations and companies that support the Free Flow of Information Act and with Hill staff to get one version of this legislation - or a compromise between the two -through both Houses and to the President's desk for his presumed signature (you may recall that then-Senator Obama co-sponsored S 2035 in the 110th Congress, announced during the joint ASNE/NAA Convention in Washington in April 2008). Links to editorials written by other ASNE members, as well as general information regarding the legislation, can be found on the Free Flow of Information Act page of the ASNE website.
The need to enact the Free Flow of Information Act into law becomes more acute with every passing day. Detroit Free Press reporter David Ashenfelter avoided significant fines (which the trial judge could have required Mr. Ashenfelter to pay out of his own pocket) and, possibly, jail time when a trial judge ruled on April 21 that Mr. Ashenfelter's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination permitted him to refuse to testify about the source of information relating to his 2004 stories on prosecutorial misconduct during a federal terrorism trial. However, there was no ruling that the First Amendment protects a reporter called into court, thereby prolonging our fears regarding the next reporter in this situation.