FREE PRESS -- A long-debated federal "shield" law to protect journalists who refuse
to reveal their confidential sources got nudged a little closer
to passage yesterday, reports Jennifer Harper for the Washington Times.

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans a mark-up session with the
shield law at the top of the agenda, a committee source told The
Washington Times.
"It is very significant that this is the first bill on the
agenda. That tends to indicate that it is in a position of priority,"
the Senate aide said.

A federal shield law would grant journalists the right to
refuse to reveal information they have obtained during the
news-gathering process in certain legal proceedings—and ultimately
would protect the public's "right to know."

Currently, 49 states have some form of common-law, statutory or
rule-based protections for journalists—but there is no definitive
federal legislation in place for those who choose not to reveal their
sources in court. The House passed its version of the "Free Flow of
Information Act" in March, but Senate action is needed for the bill to
become law.

The aide said the bill enjoys strong support from Judiciary
Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and a number of
other members on the panel. Judiciary Committee members Sens. Arlen
Specter, Pennsylvania Democrat; Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat; and
Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, are among the original
co-sponsors of the bill.

"The bill is a priority for a lot of members - including the
chairman," the source said. "We could charge right through it, and
there's a chance it could spill over to another session. But it is a
priority."


The protections in the bill would be "similar to those afforded
to lawyers and their clients, clergy and their penitents, and
psychotherapists and their patients," according to the Society of
Professional Journalists, which has raised $30,000 in the past year to
build support for the law.

But protecting whistleblowers in a post-Sept. 11 era of heightened national security has proved to be complicated.
Opponents of federal shield laws say they give journalists
special rights not available to ordinary citizens and could undermine
the power of court-ordered subpoenas to obtain information.

Deciding
who qualifies as a journalist protected by the shield law has also
proven difficult.
Some officials in the George W. Bush administration argued that
covert-intelligence and law-enforcement operations could be compromised
by a federal shield law—and made their objections known to Senate
leaders.