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Committee Votes to Send Shield Law Legislation to the Senate, Broadens Definition of Journalist

A federal shield law protecting journalists from overzealous government intrusion is one big step closer to becoming a reality today, after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve the Free Flow of Information Act and send it on to the full Senate.

As defined in the act, the law would cover a wide range of information gatherers including nonfiction authors, bloggers, students and freelancers, regardless of whether they’re being paid for the work. In addition, a federal judge could rule that someone who doesn’t fit into any of the categories laid out in the law is covered.  The committee broadened the definition of “covered persons” with an amendment approved today ahead of the vote on the full act.

That more inclusive definition makes this a double victory for free press advocates, who feared that the law as previously written would leave unprotected many journalists who work in non-traditional media.

The bipartisan legislation seeks to strike a balance between the First Amendment rights of journalists to not to reveal their sources and other private information and the need to protect the public from the dangers created by leaks of classified information.

While attempts at passing a federal shield law have failed in the past, most recently in 2009 with legislation similar to the act approved in committee today, momentum for putting the protection into place has been building since revelations earlier this year that the Justice Department secretly obtained the emails of a Fox News reporter and the phone records of Associated Press reporters.

Outrage over the revelations led Attorney General Eric Holder to issue new guidelines for obtaining journalists’ records while investigating leaks. But without the force of law, those guidelines could be changed at the whims of the current or future administrations. Legislators and First Amendment advocacy groups, including the Authors Guild, have been pushing for legislation that would expand on those guidelines and make them law.