Congress mulls federal shield law for journalists

The S.F. Chronicle reports:

In a strong statement of bipartisan support for press freedom, the House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to advance legislation that would give journalists a qualified right to protect confidential sources.

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Rep. Mike Pence, the Indiana Republican who co-sponsored HR2102 with Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., called the vote “an important first step toward repairing a tear in the First Amendment.” Pence describes himself as an advocate of limited government who believes the “only check on government power in real time” is a free and independent press.

Pence has been concerned by the federal government’s increasingly aggressive attempts to coerce journalists to reveal their sources through threats of fines or jail time. He often cites the case of Chronicle staff writers Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, who faced the prospect of imprisonment when they refused to divulge how they obtained grand-jury testimony in the BALCO steroids investigation.

His proposed “shield” is not absolute. Reporters still could be forced by the courts to reveal sources in cases involving threats to national security, disclosures of trade secrets or personal financial or health information, or a threat of death or significant physical harm.

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