State Laws/Franchising

Shield Law Passes Senate Judiciary

12/10/2009 1:22 PM Eastern

A federal shield law, The Free Flow of Information Act, has finally passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on its 17th attempt to get a vote. But that passage did not come without sometimes heated debate on a string of amendments by Republicans and one Democrat, most of which were voted down.

Among the amendments defeated were ones that would have sunset the bill in 2013--putting the onus on its supporters to defend its continuation--and one that would have tightened the definition of journalist.

It must still be voted in the full Senate then reconciled with a different version passed in the House.

The bill gives journalists a qualified protection from being compelled to give up information or identify sources, though with a number of carve-outs for national security, bodily harm and sensitive personal and business information. It currently tops the list of bills to be considered at a Dec. 10 business meeting.

The bill has been on the calendar since spring (and including long-deceased ancestors, has been pushed by journalistic organizations for at least two decades). But it was held up by the Obama administration until a compromise was struck on some national security issues, and then by Republicans, who thought the balance was still too far in favor of journalists and argued the compromise had been between people who already supported the bill, not Republicans with remaining issues.

They continued that argument during an almost three-hour hearing Thursday, but ultimately did not have the votes.

There were some Democrats, most vocally Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), who were uncomfortable with some portions of the bill, including a definition of journalists that could include purveyors of hateful speech, but other Democrats said that speech should be protected as well.

September