WASHINGTON -- Setting up a potential confrontation with the Bush administration over press freedoms, the House overwhelmingly passed legislation yesterday that would extend new protections to journalists and their confidential sources.
The so-called shield law would for the first time establish standards that limit the power of federal authorities to compel reporters to testify or to disclose documents and unidentified sources they have used in their reporting.
The bill passed, 398-21, with broad bipartisan support after several high-profile cases in which journalists faced jail time for refusing to reveal sources. With 176 Republicans joining 222 Democrats, the measure far exceeded the two-thirds needed to override a veto.
"In recent years, the press has been under assault," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat. "It's ... Congress' responsibility to ensure that the press is able to perform its job adequately. ... This measure balances the public's right to know against the legitimate and important interests society has in maintaining public safety."
A similar bill attracted broad bipartisan support when the Senate Judiciary Committee approved it 15-2 this month.
Even if the federal shield law wins Senate passage, it faces staunch opposition from the White House, which warned yesterday that the law "would produce immediate harm to national security and law enforcement" by encouraging leaks and hampering the government's ability to prosecute terrorism cases. The administration warned of a veto if it is sent to the president.
More than 30 states have shield laws that protect journalists in state courts. In more than 15 other states, the courts have recognized reporters' rights to protect their sources.
Responding to criticism from the Bush administration, the sponsors also added an exception yesterday to allow a judge to order disclosure if it is "essential" to the investigation or prosecution of a leak of classified information. The exception requires a judge to find that the unauthorized leak "has caused or will cause significant and articulable harm to the national security."
Also, in a concession to business groups that had opposed the bill, the measure allows a judge to order the disclosure of individuals who have divulged trade secrets or private medical records protected by federal law.
Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times.