Utah’s senators split on federal reporters’ shield law

12 09 2013

Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee found themselves on opposite sides of whether to grant journalists a qualified right to refuse to testify or hand over notes.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 Thursday to pass out the Free Flow of Information Act to the full Senate for consideration. Hatch voted in favor of the bill, which includes compromise language on who is a journalist, while Lee, the state’s junior senator voted no.

Media organizations have been pushing for a law allowing reporters to protect their sources and their notes since 2006. Forty-eight states, including Utah, have laws offering protection in varying degrees to journalists.

The sticking point on the federal law has been defining who is a journalist. Organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists have argued that rules should protect people who practice journalism. But. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., attempted to push for language that would limit the protection to “real journalists.”

Compromise language approved Thursday extends the protection to freelance journalists and bloggers who have worked in traditional media in the past.

Attempts to contact Lee for comment were not successful.

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Utah Sen. Mike Lee leaning toward defining journalists strictly

5 09 2013

Sen. Mike Lee, who is threatening to shut down the federal government in order to kill Obamacare, might not be adverse to signing off on a Democrat’s idea.

Lee, R-Utah, may support Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal to limit protection under a proposed federal shield law to journalists who have either drawn a salary or had their work published in a recognized publication during a three-month period.

Brian Phillips, Lee’s spokesman, said Lee wants to see a narrowly drawn definition of a journalist, in order to prevent someone who merely dumps data on the Internet from being legally excused from testifying about it in court. He also said if Feinstein’s amendment can do that, Lee would support it.

Feinstein’s definition of a journalist, which she first drafted in 2010 after Army Pfc. Bradley Manning provided diplomatic cables and other documents related to the U.S. war in Iraq to the Wikileaks website. Feinstein’s push to keep bloggers and other amateur journalists from being protected by a shield law scuttled the bill then.

But it was resurrected this year after the Justice Department seized phone records from the Associated Press in an attempt to find the identity of the source of a story.

The Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Society of Professional Journalists and other organizations are supporting the bill, which has had one hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Those groups believe the bill should offer protection from testifying or turning over notes to those who practice journalism, regardless of whether they draw a paycheck.

Phillips said Lee was also reviewing the bill to make sure that it adequately protected national security.

The bill allows the privilege to be waived if it relates to a national security issue, such as a probable terrorist attack.

Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, said the bill’s supporters conceded the national security issue, which she said represents about 5 percent of the cases where reporters are hauled into court, in order to maintain protection in criminal and civil court cases, where it would do “enormous good.”

In 2007, freelance journalist Josh Wolf was released after spending more than six months behind bars because he would not turn over unpublished footage of rioting in San Francisco during the Group of Eight summit meeting. Wolf’s case was moved from state court, where he had the protection of California’s shield law, to federal court — where no shield law exists — because federal money paid for some of the police cars that were burned in the riot.

Dalglish, speaking at the Excellence in Journalism convention in Anaheim, Calif., Aug. 26, said many people are shocked to learn that there is no federal shield laws, unlike 48 states that have either a shield law or, in Utah’s case, a shield rule.