Senate Democrats, White House Revive Media Shield Law

May 15, 2013 4:18pm

ABC News’ Mary Bruce, Sunlen Miller and Steven Portnoy report:

Faced with blowback after it was revealed this week the Department of Justice secretly obtained Associated Press phone records, the White House and Senate Democrats are reviving legislation to protect journalists.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., today reintroduced the media shield bill, The Free Flow of Information Act of 2013, which would aim to protect journalists from having to reveal information, including source identities, as well as establish a legal framework for determining the “limited circumstances” when this information could be subject to compelled disclosure in court.

“The White House has been in contact with Sen. Schumer, and we are glad to see that that legislation will be reintroduced, because he believes strongly that we need to provide the protections to the media that this legislation would do,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters today. “The president believes that the balance that we need to achieve needs to allow the maximum amount of freedom for the media to pursue investigative journalism that’s possible. And the media shield law that he supports, or bill that he supports, would go a long way towards achieving that.”

It was unclear, bill sponsors admitted, whether the bill would have changed the outcome in the AP phone records case.

Attorney General Eric Holder expressed support for such a law at a hearing of the full House Judicial Committee Wednesday afternoon after being asked about the Department of Justice’s authority to prosecute reporters for publishing classified information.

“With regard to the potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I’ve ever been involved in, heard of or would think would be a wise policy,” Holder said in response to a question from Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga. “In fact, my view is quite the opposite. … There should be a shield law with regard to the press’ ability to gather information and to disseminate it. The focus should be on those people who break their oaths and put the American people at risk, not reporters who gather this information.”

The bill does not provide an absolute privilege for journalists. Prosecutors would have to convince a judge that the information at issue would “prevent or mitigate an act of terrorism or harm to national security.”

“This kind of law would balance national security needs against the public’s right to the free flow of information. At minimum, our bill would have ensured a fairer, more deliberate process in this case,” Schumer said.

This bill was last considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2009 but stalled in the full Senate.

The Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press is hopeful this latest attempt to pass a shield law will be successful.  But the group is concerned the Schumer bill’s exception for national security is overly broad.

“If you say ‘any national security threat, as defined by the administration,’ they’re going to overuse it,” said the committee’s legal defense director, Gregg Leslie.  ”We know that for the same reasons they overreached in this case.”

ABC News’ Sarah Parnass contributed to this report.

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