Federal Shield Bill Reintroduced in the House



WASHINGTON – A coalition of media companies and journalism organizations applauds reintroduction of the “Free Flow of Information Act” in the House of Representatives that would protect the public’s right to know by setting federal standards when journalists can be compelled to disclose the identities of their confidential sources.

The 71 members of the media coalition appreciate the leadership of the bill sponsors – Reps. Rick Boucher (D-VA), Mike Pence (R-IN), John Conyers (D-MI) and Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) – and the broad bipartisan support of the additional 35 original co-sponsors. A similar bill will be introduced in the Senate.

The legislation responds to a disturbing trend, according to coalition members: Since 2001, five journalists have been sentenced or jailed for refusing to reveal their confidential sources in federal court. Two reporters were sentenced to 18 months in prison and one reporter faced up to $5,000 a day in fines. A 2006 study estimated that in that year alone, 67 federal subpoenas sought confidential material from reporters, with 41 of those subpoenas seeking the name of a confidential source. Currently, David Ashenfelter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Detroit Free Press reporter, is facing possible jail time and fines for declining to disclose his confidential sources in response to a subpoena issued by a former U.S. attorney, who filed a civil lawsuit against the Justice Department after he was investigated for prosecutorial misconduct in a high-profile terrorism trial. Ashenfelter’s contempt hearing is scheduled for today (February 11). Compelling disclosure of confidential sources will hamper the ability of journalists to report on matters of great public interest. The Watergate scandal, mistreatment of soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the massive fraud at Enron, and other groundbreaking stories about government and corporate waste, fraud and abuse would have remained unknown both to the public and Congress without information from confidential sources. Nor does imprisoning or bankrupting journalists help our government’s efforts to promote democracy and freedom of the press around the world. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), a lead sponsor of the Free Flow of Information Act of 2009, said the following about the reintroduction of the Bill: “Our legislation appropriately places the public’s right to know above the more narrow interest of the administration of justice in a particular federal case. In fact, in many instances, the critical information which first alerts federal prosecutors to conduct a criminal proceeding is contained in a news story which could only have been reported upon with the assurance of anonymity to the news source. Passage of this measure will assure a stronger underpinning of both freedom of the press and free speech in future years.” Mike Pence, also a lead sponsor, said this:

“Defending freedom is not the exclusive province of any one political party. It is the work of every American and every Member of Congress. That is why I am especially proud to join my distinguished Democratic colleague Congressman Rick Boucher from Virginia in re-introducing this truly bipartisan measure-the Free Flow of Information Act.

“As a conservative who believes in limited government, I believe that the only check on government power in real time is a free and independent press. The Free Flow of Information Act would provide a qualified privilege to journalists to shield confidential sources from disclosure except in certain situations such as when our national security is at stake. Ensuring that reporters can keep sources confidential is vital to ensuring the free flow of information to the public. This legislation is not about protecting reporters; it’s about protecting the public’s right to know.
“I am hopeful that Congress will move with all deliberate speed in bringing this legislation to the floor. With the strong bipartisan support which this legislation received in the House of Representatives last session, I am confident that we can put a stitch in this tear in the First Amendment freedom of the press and ensure the vitality of a free and independent press for generations to come.”

The Free Flow of Information Act of 2009 does not provide a free pass to the press or their sources. Rather, the House bill provides journalists with a privilege that is qualified, not absolute. The legislation establishes reasonable standards for when a reporter can be compelled to testify, and when a reporter can receive legal protection. The bill contains exceptions to the privilege to prevent or investigate acts of terrorism or other significant harm to national security, to furnish eyewitness observations of a crime, and to provide information needed to prevent death or significant bodily harm. At the federal level, there is no uniform set of standards to govern when testimony and documents can be sought from reporters. Federal standards are needed to provide uniformity and predictability in light of conflicting federal court opinions. At the state level, 49 states and the District of Columbia provide some legal protection for journalists and their sources. In June 2008, the Attorneys General from 42 states warned that the lack of federal standards is “producing inconsistency and uncertainty for reporters and the confidential sources” and undermining state shield laws. Members of the media coalition urge Congress to act swiftly in passing the Free Flow of Information Act of 2009. An identical measure passed the House in the 110th Congress by an extraordinary vote of 398 to 21. A similar measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a strong bipartisan vote of 15 to 4.

NAA is a nonprofit organization representing the $47 billion newspaper industry and more than 2,000 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada. NAA members include daily newspapers, as well as non-dailies, other print publications and on-line products. Headquartered near Washington, D.C., in Arlington, Va., the Association focuses on the major issues that affect today’s newspaper industry: public policy/legal matters, advertising revenue growth and audience development across the medium’s broad portfolio of products and digital platforms. Following is a list of media coalition members and statements of support from selected organizations:



Organizations / Companies Supporting

“Free Flow of Information Act of 2009”


ABC Inc.

Advance Publications, Inc.

A.H. Belo Corporation

Allbritton Communications Co.

American Business Media

American Society of Magazine Editors

American Society of Newspaper Editors

The Associated Press

Associated Press Managing Editors Association

Association of Alternative Newsweeklies

Association of American Publishers, Inc.

Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors

The Authors Guild

Belo Corp.

Bloomberg News

California First Amendment Coalition

CBS Corporation

Clear Channel


Coalition of Journalists for Open Government

Copley Press, Inc.

Court TV

Cox Enterprises, Inc.

Cox Newspapers

Cox Television

Daily News, L.P.

Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

E. W. Scripps

First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, Inc.

Freedom Communications, Inc.

Gannett Co., Inc.

Gray Television

Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S., Inc.

Hearst Corp.

Incisive Media, LLC

Lee Enterprises, Inc.

Magazine Publishers of America

McClatchy Company

The McGraw Hill Companies

Media Law Resource Center

National Association of Broadcasters

National Federation of Press Women

National Geographic Society

National Newspaper Association

National Press Club

National Press Photographers Association

National Public Radio

NBC Universal

New York Times Co.

News Corporation

Newspaper Association of America

Newspaper Guild-CWA

North Jersey Media Group, Inc.

Online News Association

Pennsylvania Newspaper Association

Radio-Television News Directors Association

Raycom Media, Inc.

Regional Reporters Association

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Reuters America LLC

Society of Professional Journalists

Telemundo Network

Time Inc.

Time Warner Cable Inc.

Time Warner Inc.

Tribune Company

U.S. News & World Report

USA Today

Walt Disney Co.

Washington Post Company

White House News Photographers Association

FOR THE “Free Flow of Information Act of 2009”



John F. Sturm, president & CEO, Newspaper Association of America:


“The legislation is a positive step toward preserving the free flow of information while still honoring the public interest in having reporters testify under certain circumstances. Too often the journalist is becoming the first stop – rather than the last resort – for civil litigants and prosecutors attempting to obtain the identity of confidential sources. The bill establishes important and balanced ground rules for compelled disclosure of sources and information from reporters.”


Charlotte Hall, President, American Society of Newspaper Editors:


“With yet another reporter now facing contempt charges for protecting the identity of a confidential source, the Free Flow of Information Act is more important than ever. ASNE strongly supports this well-considered proposal because it will ensure that reporters can protect sources of information that allow them to serve as the public’s watchdogs.”


Richard Karpel, Executive Director, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies:


“When the news is bad, it’s only natural that public officials try to hide it. Consequently, confidential sources are often the only means to uncovering the truth. By protecting those sources, this bill helps the American public hold its government accountable.”


Laura Leslie, President, Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors:


“No reporter or editor should ever have to face a court battle in pursuit of investigative journalism. But even in states with shield laws, the lack of a federal standard has left statehouse reporters and their confidential sources at risk. We applaud the sponsors of the Free Flow of Information Act for creating a fair federal standard to protect journalists as they work to protect the public.”


Nina Link, President & CEO, Magazine Publishers of America:


“We commend all of the sponsors of the Free Flow of Information Act for their tireless efforts to promote openness and government accountability. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. This bipartisan group of lawmakers has come together to help ensure that the American public will receive vital information essential to our democracy through the protection of confidential sources.”


Sandy Baron, Executive Director, Media Law Resource Center:


“The Media Law Resource Center commends the sponsors of the Free Flow of Information Act for understanding that protecting the ability of journalists to gather information ultimately protects the public’s ability to receive that information – often on the actions of government and other powerful institutions in our communities and nation. The Free Flow of Information Act would bring a genuine measure of harmony between the federal law and that of the majority of states that currently limit compelled disclosure and testimony by journalists.”


David Rehr, President & CEO, National Association of Broadcasters:


“NAB salutes Representatives Boucher, Conyers, Pence and Goodlatte and their colleagues for remaining committed to protecting journalists with federal shield legislation. Throughout history, broadcast journalists have worked tirelessly to keep citizens informed with timely investigative reporting on issues of critical importance to their local communities and our nation. NAB looks forward to working with our media coalition partners and Congress to ensure that reporters have continued access to confidential sources without the fear of facing jail time.”


John Stevenson, President, National Newspaper Association:


“An informed public conveys a powerful message that a nation can weather any storm.  In these tough economic times, it is imperative that media, large and small, have the ability to publish information of great public concern without the fear of costly litigation. For small media, unnecessary subpoenas can bring a newsroom to a complete halt.”


Barbara Cochran, President, Radio-Television News Directors Association:


“Broadcast investigative reporter Jim Taricani spent four months under house arrest rather than reveal the source of his report on corruption in the government of Providence, R.I. Without a federal shield law, reporters like Taricani may spend time in confinement when they should be in newsrooms. RTNDA applauds the sponsors of the Free Flow of Information Act for taking action to safeguard journalists’ ability to obtain important information for the public from confidential sources.”   


Lucy Dalglish, Executive Director, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:


“From Watergate to stories about warrantless eavesdropping on American citizens, reporters have relied on anonymous sources to report on important stories about government behavior and corporate wrongdoing. The Free Flow of Information Act will make it easier for reporters to protect the sources of such stories.”


Dave Aeikens (St. Cloud Times), President, Society of Professional Journalists:


“This bill is critical to the First Amendment and democracy. This bill is not a special privilege for journalists but protection for whistleblowers – regular people who don’t have any other way to expose wrongdoing than to have a journalist investigate.”