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Senators Renew Push for Shield Law; Say Bill Would Codify Justice Department’s New Protections for Journalists

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled this week to consider legislation that would turn into law new Department of Justice guidelines putting greater restrictions on how the government collects journalists’ private information while investigating leaks.

The shield law legislation calls for courts to “apply a balancing test before compelling disclosure” of sources and other information from journalists. It also requires that courts arbitrate government media records requests and that journalists be notified within 90  days of their records being reviewed by the DOJ.

The Authors Guild, which has long backed the enactment of such a law, is part of a coalition of media organizations calling on Congress to use this as an opportunity to strengthen the First Amendment protection of press freedom.

Earlier this month, the DOJ drafted a new policy for investigating journalists in response to outrage over revelations that  it secretly collected the phone records of Associated Press reporters and examined emails of Fox News reporter James Rosen in a search for the source of government leaks.

Members of a bipartisan coalition of senators said a shield law is needed to ensure that the reforms in this new policy can’t be undone at the whims of government officials.

“Guidelines are not going to cut it in the 21st century, I think we need a statute, we need a law that transcends the administration,” South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said during a press conference announcing the bill.

The bill’s Democratic c0-sponsor, New York’s Sen. Chuck Schumer, said the legislation is not a free pass to leak classified information that would endanger the country. He said it was drafted to “Ensure the proper balance between national security and freedom of the press.”

The current bill revives legislation that Schumer pushed for unsuccessfully in 2009. But last week, noting that a similar bill has been introduced in the House (see the Newspaper Guild’s analysis of that bill), Schumer said, “The chances of this bipartisan legislation becoming law are high.”