WASHINGTON — Reporters would not be forced to reveal their sources, and their notes, photographs and other material would be protected from government eyes under a bill introduced late last week.
Amid a spate of First Amendment fights pitting the government against journalists over confidential sources, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., proposed the legislation as critical to ensuring the nation's liberties.
"Democracy is premised on an informed citizenry," Dodd said at a Nov. 19 Capitol Hill news conference. "A free press is the best guarantee of a knowledgeable citizenry."
Journalists contend the First Amendment, which established freedom of the press, gives reporters the right not to divulge their sources. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have shield laws to protect the media from disclosing sources in state cases.
But no federal law exists, and special prosecutors in a number of high-profile cases have aggressively pursued journalists. The possibility of jail time looms for some.
Rhode Island television reporter Jim Taricani was convicted of criminal contempt on Nov. 18 for refusing to reveal who leaked him an FBI videotape of a politician taking a bribe. Reporters for Time and The New York Times have been held in contempt as part of an investigation into the disclosure of an undercover CIA officer's identity.
Under Dodd's bill, the federal courts, legislative or executive branch could not compel a journalist to provide the source of information, regardless of whether that person has been promised confidentiality. That right would extend to a journalist's notebooks, photographic negatives and other material.
The bill says a court could force disclosure of news in cases in which it is critical to a legal issue, the information cannot be obtained anywhere else and an overriding public interest exists in the disclosure.
Lawyers who have handled First Amendment cases welcomed the legislation as overdue.
"The advantage of a shield law once and for all is defining the privilege and establishing what the scope is," said Kevin Baine, a lawyer with Williams and Connolly.
Bruce Sanford, an attorney with Baker and Hostetler, cited the courts' respect for confidentiality in certain relations — priest and penitent, doctor and patient, husband and wife — and argued that it should apply to reporters and their sources.
"It's an issue of open government and whether the public receives the information they need," Sanford said.
Charles Tobin, a lawyer with Holland and Knight, said it was appropriate for Congress to step in and "clarify an area of law that we thought was very clear" but has been muddied by recent cases.
Dodd, the lone sponsor of the measure, introduced the bill in the waning hours of the congressional session, but promised to reintroduce it when a new Congress begins in January. He voiced optimism about gaining the support of Republicans and Democrats, noting that several states with shield laws are conservative, GOP-leaning states.
That point was echoed by media lawyer Laura Handman of Davis, Wright and Tremaine who said, "Informing citizenry really crosses party lines."
John Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America, endorsed the legislation, saying it would allow journalists to do their jobs without fear of penalty.
The New England Society of Newspaper Editors also issued a statement calling for a federal shield law.