WASHINGTON - Advocates for a proposed federal shield law that would keep journalists from having to disclose confidential sources told the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday that the lack of such protection is impinging on the public's right to information.
But the panel's Republican chairman told them not to hold their breath. Also, unexpected opposition came from Democrats who said they found the proposed law too sweeping.
The bill would compel testimony from a journalist only when the identity of a source was necessary to prevent imminent and actual harm to national security.
"The absence of federal legislation has created extraordinary chaos, limiting the public's access to important information that is so necessary in a democratic society," said Norman Pearlstine, editor in chief of Time Inc., who recently turned over confidential documents to the special prosecutor investigating the leak of Valerie Plame's CIA identity.
The Justice Department has gone on record opposing the proposed shield law. In written testimony, Deputy Attorney General James Comey questioned the proposed legislation's definition of a journalist, which he suggested was so broad it would protect corporate affiliates and even publishers of sales catalogs.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, wondered whether such a law should not be further restricted to require reporters to divulge the names of criminals, such as child abusers, who might contact them.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, acknowledged after yesterday's hearing that chances of congressional action this year are unlikely because of more pressing business facing the Senate.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar, a Indiana Republican, chairman of the Senate International Relations Committee and one of the bill's co-sponsors, said the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller for refusing to disclose her source in the Plame case had hurt the United States internationally.
"Global public opinion is always on the lookout to advertise perceived American double standards," he said. "This is evident in the ironic international response" to Miller's jailing. Quoting the Guardian in London as saying "the American Constitution no longer protects the unfettered freedom of the press," Lugar said that with reporters in jail in China, Cuba and Burma, "that is not good company for the United States of America."
Washington lawyer Lee Levine, who represents the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press in the U.S. government's investigation of a leak about nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, suggested that in crafting a law to protect journalists and their sources, problems with definition abound. "One person's whistle-blower," he said, "is another person's slander-monger."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.