U.S. to Oppose Reporters' Shield Law

Times Staff Writer

The Justice Department plans to announce its opposition today to a proposed federal shield law that would protect journalists from having to reveal their sources.

In written testimony scheduled before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Deputy Atty. Gen. James B. Comey calls the bill "bad public policy." In the testimony, Comey says the bill would give more protection to reporters than is offered others, such as attorneys and spouses, who are also shielded from testifying.

"It would bar the government from obtaining information about media sources -- even in the most urgent of circumstances affecting the public's health or safety or national security," he says in the prepared testimony.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said she was disappointed by the testimony.

"I was prepared for them to throw up roadblocks," said Dalglish, whose staff has been working with Senate sponsors to craft an exemption for national security emergencies. "They appear more viscerally opposed to it than I had imagined."

The bill -- sponsored by Sens. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), and Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.) -- would compel testimony from a journalist only when the identity of a source is necessary to prevent imminent and actual harm to national security.

Earlier this month, New York Times reporter Judith Miller was sentenced to four months in jail for not revealing a confidential source on an unpublished article that she researched concerning CIA operative Valerie Plame. Miller is now in the Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia.

Some 80 media groups have formed a coalition to support a shield law to prevent other reporters from going to jail.

In the last 18 months, according to the Newspaper Assn. of America, nearly two dozen broadcast and print reporters have been subpoenaed or questioned about their confidential sources. The District of Columbia and 31 states have so-called shield laws that protect journalists from testifying, and another 17 states have recognized reporter privilege through judicial decisions.

But Comey, in his testimony, says no new legislation is needed because the Justice Department already has guidelines that weigh the importance of press freedom against the prosecutorial need for reporters' testimony.

"The freedom of the press is a hallowed American right, and in a time when news can be sent around the world almost instantaneously, it is as important as ever that the American people be kept informed," he says. "For this reason, the department's disciplined approach to subpoenas directed towards members of the news media carefully balances the public's interest in the free dissemination of ideas and information with the public's interest in effective law enforcement."

Comey also expresses concern that the definition of a journalist in the bill is too broad, saying it could include "non-media corporate affiliates, subsidiaries, or parents of any cable system [or] programming service.... It would also include any supermarket, department store or other business that periodically publishes a products catalog, sales pamphlet or even a listing of registered customers. Far more dangerously, it would cover criminal or terrorist organizations that also have media operations ... such as Al Qaeda, which, from its founding, maintained a media office that published a newsletter."

Asked about that, the Reporters Committee's Dalglish called it "a bogus worry."

For 30 years, she said, the courts have been making assessments about who is a reporter and who is not. "The courts have no problem determining who is a journalist," she said. It "is flat-out ridiculous" to allege that the bill would give protection to the author of the J.C. Penney catalog, she said.

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