House Unanimously Passes Shield Law

Bill prevents journalists or their sources from being forced to testify in federal court, heads to Senate for approval

Filed at 11:59 p.m. EST on Mar. 31, 2009

The Free Flow of Information Act passed the House unanimously Tuesday (by a voice vote), and now heads to the Senate.

The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee last week, though not without criticism from some Republicans, who said it would create a special status for journalists, and did not define that term narrowly enough.

The bill prevents journalists or their sources from being compelled to testify in federal courts, with carve-outs for national security, cases of imminent harm, and leaks of personal, medical or information related to trade secrets. Though even in those cases a judge would have to balance those interests against the public interest in revealing the information.

"Today's passage of the Free Flow of Information Act is a major victory for the public's right to know and for the ability of reporters to bring important information to light," said bill co-sponsor Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA). "The assurance of confidentiality that reporters give to sources is fundamental to their ability to deliver news on highly contentious matters of broad public interest such as corruption in government or misdeeds in corporations. Without the promise of confidentiality, many inside sources would not reveal the information, and opportunity to take corrective action to address the harms would not arise," Boucher said.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the bill a step in the right direction, but one that did not go far enough.

"We believe its reach is too narrow," said the group in a statement. "This bill should safeguard all journalists, whether or not they pursue the truth for money. The media landscape is shifting greatly and those engaging in new forms of journalism should have similar protections as those working in a newsroom."

The bill defines a covered journalist as someone who gains a substantial financial interest or earns the majority of their livelihood from their journalistic pursuits.