WASHINGTON — Journalists and bloggers who report news to the public will be protected from being forced to testify about their work under a media shield bill passed by a Senate committee Thursday.
But the new legal protections will not extend to the controversial website WikiLeaks and others whose principal work involves disclosing "primary source documents … without authorization."
Senate sponsors of the bill and a coalition of media groups that support it hailed Thursday's bipartisan committee vote as a breakthrough.
"We're closer than we've ever been before to passing a strong and tough media shield bill," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "Thanks to important bipartisan compromises, we've put together a strong bill that balances the need for national security with that of a free press."
The final hurdle for the judiciary committee was defining who is a journalist in the digital era.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) insisted on limiting the legal protection to "real reporters" and not, she said, a 17-year-old with his own website. "I can't support it if everyone who has a blog has a special privilege … or if Edward Snowden were to sit down and write this stuff, he would have a privilege. I'm not going to go there," she said.
Feinstein introduced an amendment that defines a "covered journalist" as someone who gathers and reports news for "an entity or service that disseminates news and information." The definition includes freelancers, part-timers and student journalists, and it permits a judge to go further and extend the protections to any "legitimate news-gathering activities."
But the bill also makes clear the legal protection is not absolute. Federal officials still may "compel disclosure" from a journalist who has information that could stop or prevent crimes such as murder, kidnapping or child abduction or prevent "acts of terrorism" or significant harm to national security.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill on a 13-5 vote and sent it to the Senate floor. Its sponsors are optimistic it will win passage there, but its fate remains in doubt in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said the bill, if enacted into law, "goes a long way toward ensuring that reporters will be protected from subpoenas for their confidential information and sources. … While is it not as inclusive as we would like, it is not nearly as limited in that area as previous attempts at a federal shield law have been."
While nearly every state has a media shield law, past efforts to pass a federal shield law have floundered, usually because of concerns over leaks of national security secrets.
The bill got a boost in recent months due to an odd confluence of events. The Obama administration had launched an aggressive effort to plug national security leaks that appeared to backfire. The administration was sharply criticized for bringing an espionage charge against a whistle-blower who had worked at the National Security Agency and for secretly obtaining phone records from reporters for the Associated Press and Fox News.
When these incidents came to light, President Obama told the Justice Department to develop new guidelines to protect journalists, and he pledged strong support for the media shield bill that was pending in the Senate.
And in recent months, the NSA's secret surveillance of phone records and emails has been exposed by Edward Snowden, a former private contractor who fled the country.
During Thursday's committee debate, the senators sounded divided on how to view these leaks. While Feinstein condemned those who revealed classified information, committee chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said the public had learned valuable information about how the spy agency is operating.
Sen. John Cornyn (D-Texas), one of five Republicans who opposed the bill, said Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. was overstepping his authority.
"This bill was called for because of abuses by the Justice Department," he said. The current administration has "been the most abusive to the press in modern times," he said, "but a new law is not what we need."
Schumer, however, argued that putting the guidelines into law will prevent the Obama administration and future administrations from overstepping their authority.