WASHINGTON — Reporters who decline to reveal confidential information or sources would gain limited protection in federal court under a bill approved Tuesday in the House.
The bill passed on a voice vote, although several lawmakers opposed it. Similar legislation passed the House overwhelmingly in 2007, but the Senate has taken no action.
Supporters said the Free Flow of Information Act balances the public's right to essential information and the federal government's ability to protect Americans from terrorism and violent crimes. Opponents said it could harm national security and hinder criminal investigations while creating an undeserved special privilege for journalists.
"The purpose of our legislation is not to protect reporters," the chief sponsor, Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., argued. "It is to protect the public's right to know." He said sources won't call journalists with vital information if they fear exposure and retaliation by those responsible for wrongdoing.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, countered that exceptions to the reporters' shield — compelling testimony that could prevent a terrorist attack or imminent bodily harm — would not help after an attack occurred.
"Under the bill, law enforcement officials could have obtained information identifying a reporter's source on Sept. 10, 2001 ... but could not have acquired that same information on Sept. 12 to track down terrorists," Smith contended.
President Barack Obama was a sponsor of a shield bill as an Illinois senator and as a presidential candidate.
The House bill allows a court to compel a journalist to reveal confidential sources in these circumstances:
_To prevent an act of terrorism against the United States or its allies, prevent significant harm to national security or to identify a perpetrator of a terrorist act.
_To stop an imminent death or significant bodily harm.
_To identify someone who disclosed a trade secret, health information on individuals, or financial information that is confidential under federal laws.
_To identify, in a criminal investigation, someone who disclosed properly classified information that caused or will cause significant harm to national security.
Even if those requirements are met, the party seeking information must establish that the public interest in compelling disclosure outweighs the public interest in gathering or disseminating information.
Reporters have shield laws or state court rulings providing some protections in all states except Wyoming. The Texas legislature is considering a shield law.
The bill had support from liberals and conservatives and dozens of journalism organizations. Media representatives have been negotiating with senators, in efforts to persuade them to pass similar legislation soon.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said journalists in recent years faced increased pressure in federal courts to reveal confidential sources.
"Now, fewer journalists will face jail or bankruptcy for doing their jobs," she said. "More importantly, the chances will be greater that the public will receive truthful, independently gathered information."
Charlotte Hall, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said, "We look forward to working with the Senate and hope that we can soon ensure the free flow of information the public so vitally deserves."