(WASHINGTON) — After the recent controversies over Justice Department investigations of reporters, there may be new life for a so-called “media shield” law.
A bill protecting reporters and news organizations from prosecution for publishing leaks and declining to name sources, petered out in previous congresses, but a bipartisan group of senators Wednesday stumped for a revamped version, which would codify as law the guidelines for media investigations released by the Department of Justice on Friday. It would also add new restrictions.
“[The bill] will make the Department of Justice guidelines the law of the land and go even further than the guidelines to ensure the proper balance of national security and freedom of the press,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said at a press conference Wednesday.
Schumer was joined by Democratic colleagues Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Republicans Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
“I’ll say this is a ‘Protect Fox News From Eric Holder Act,’” Graham joked, referring to the Justice Dept. investigation of Fox News reporter James Rosen.
“When you cover political people, it’s OK if we get upset, but it’s not OK if we use the power of the government unfairly against those who cover us,” Graham said.
The new bill follows a wave of criticism leveled at the Justice Department after disclosures that it seized Associated Press phone records and email records for Rosen, both in connection to investigation of leaks that the department argued had national-security implications.
The new version would require the Justice Department to notify reporters within 90 days if they are being investigated. It would extend that requirement beyond records requests from third-party entities like phone companies, into business and credit-card records. It would also prevent the government from compelling reporters to reveal sources.
The Justice Department announced its new guidelines on Friday. Among the changes are requirements that the government give advance notice to news organizations before requesting phone records, barring “compelling reasons” identified by the attorney general. Under the new guidelines, the Justice Department will only request email records for reporters who are the subjects of criminal investigations not connected to regular news-gathering processes.
Senators expressed worry that the current DoJ guidelines, which require notification of records requests, could be changed by future administrations.
Schumer voiced optimism that the bill will pass. “The chances of this bipartisan legislation becoming law are high,” he said.
The Judiciary Committee will take up the shield bill for a markup this month, Schumer said.
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