Shield Law Could Suffer From Latest Wikileak


A federal shield law may have just gotten a lot tougher to get through Congress–either this session or  next–in the wake of the latest Wikileak leak, though one of the bill’s principal backers says that shouldn’t be the case.

One of the problems some Demoratic as well as Republican legislators have with supporting the bill, which would give limited immunity to journalists from federal subpoenas, is who qualifies as a journalis and whether that extends to blogs and other online news/data gathering, and specifically to Wikileaks in the case of at least one powerful senator.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wanted to make it clear that the law would not protect sites like WikiLeaks after it leaked documents earlier inthe summer on the Afghan war (and later on Iraq). With the leaks of diplomatic cables over the weekend, nailing down that definition even more explicitly before a bill passes is likely to take on added weight, particularly with the loud and bipartisan Hill criticism of the leaks and their potential damage to U.S. foreign relations.  Schumer’s office was not available to comment on whether he would introduce that amendment or push for the bill’s passage in the lame duck session.

After much negotiation with Republicans and the Obama administration, bill backers secured passage of the Free Flow of Information Act in the House and the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it has yet to get a vote in the Senate and time is flying.

The bill protects journalists and their sources from prosecutorial overreach, and would be a federal protection mirroring laws or legal precedent in virtually every state.

The bill already has carve-outs for national security and other sensitive information and gives a judge the power to decide when the shield can be extended and when it can’t, but the definition of journalist and how it applies online has already helped sidetrack what journalism organizations saw as the best chance in years to get a federal shield law after decades of failed attempts.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which has been pushing hard for the shield law,  says the release of the diplomatic cables will make it tougher for passage, though she says the bill already would not cover “data drop” sites like Wikileaks. But if it means passing the bill, she says she has no trouble with making the Wikileaks exemption explicit.