WASHINGTON Federal courts would have to meet strict national standards before they could issue subpoenas to reporters under legislation introduced in the House today that would also shield journalists from having to reveal confidential sources.
Freedom of the press is one of the chief rights enumerated in the Constitution, said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., sponsor of the measure with Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va. "Unfortunately, last year almost a dozen reporters were served or threatened with jail sentences in at least three different federal jurisdictions for refusing to reveal confidential sources," he said in a speech on the House floor.
Pence, a leader among House conservatives, said the "Free Flow of Information Act" would write into law Justice Department guidelines adopted in 1973 for issuing subpoenas to members of the news media.
The standards state that prosecutors or courts must exhaust all efforts to obtain information from alternative sources before compelling reporters to testify and that any information sought from reporters must be essential to the case and be of substantial importance. Federal entities in general may not compel disclosure of the identity of a confidential source.
Pence noted that 31 states and the District of Columbia already have statutes that protect reporters from being compelled to testify or disclose sources, but there is no federal protection.
In the past year there have been several highly publicized cases of judges threatening reporters with fines or jail if they do not reveal information or sources.
Reporters for Time and The New York Times have been subpoenaed in the grand jury investigation into the leak of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame. Others face fines or jail for refusing to identify sources for stories on Wen Ho Lee, the nuclear scientist who spent nine months in solitary confinement for mishandling nuclear material but was never charged, as originally suggested, with espionage.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., introduced a similar media-shield law last November, shortly before the close of the last session of Congress. Dodd's office said he planned to reintroduce the bill in this session.