The Senate Judiciary Committee, looking to provide protections for journalists and their sources, ran into a roadblock Thursday when lawmakers couldn’t agree on the definition of “journalist.”
Under the legislation, journalists wouldn’t have to comply with subpoenas or court orders forcing them to reveal sources or confidential information unless a judge first determines there’s reason to think that a crime has occurred and government officials have exhausted all other alternatives.
It’s the third time Congress has considered a “shield law” for journalists. Similar bills have failed despite bipartisan support.
"I’m hoping the third time’s a charm," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee’s chairman.
The bill defines a journalist as a person who has a "primary intent to investigate events and procure material" in order to inform the public by regularly gathering information through interviews and observations. The person also must intend to report on the news at the start of obtaining any protected information and must plan to publish that news.
But senators disagreed on how to define journalists, since some thought the bill’s definition wasn’t specific enough.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wondered whether it could be used to provide protections to employees of WikiLeaks, an organization that allows anonymous sources to leak information to the public.
"I’m concerned this would provide special privilege to those who are not reporters at all," she said.
Feinstein suggested that the definition comprise only journalists who make salaries, saying it should be applied just to "real reporters." The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., was against that idea, since there are bloggers and others in the Internet age who don’t necessarily receive salaries.
"The world has changed. We’re very careful in this bill to distinguish journalists from those who shouldn’t be protected, WikiLeaks and all those, and we’ve ensured that," Schumer said. "But there are people who write and do real journalism, in different ways than we’re used to. They should not be excluded from this bill."
The Standing Committee of Correspondents, a group of reporters that issues congressional press passes, requires that reporters be full time and paid in order to receive passes.
The reconsideration of a shield law comes on the heels of media controversies that came to light in May. The Justice Department had seized the phone records of 20 Associated Press reporters over two months without giving them prior notice and had traced the phone calls and emails of a Fox News reporter.
The bill also would require the Justice Department to notify any reporters it chose to monitor. It allows Justice officials to delay that notice by 45 days and permits them to ask for an extension of another 45 days.
Most states have their own shield laws for journalists, but those laws don’t apply in federal court. That means any monitoring of reporters by the federal government would be covered only under a federal shield law.
The committee will continue debating the bill when it reconvenes in September, and Schumer said he hoped it would head to the Senate floor by the end of the year.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story wrongly attributed thoughts and comments by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.