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Shield Law Slated for House Vote

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) office confirmed that there will be a floor vote next Tuesday, Oct. 16, on a federal shield law, H.R. 2102, that would protect journalists and their sources from overzealous federal prosecutors.

The bill, which passed in the House Judiciary Committee in August, would establish a qualified privilege that protects journalists from having to reveal their sources to government investigators, with carveouts for some categories of information, including trade secrets and personal health information. Those carveouts were crucial in mollifying chambers of commerce and other business interests.

Online journalists and bloggers would be included in the protection so long as they were "gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, or publishing news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public."

The bill was motormanned by, among others, longtime shield-law advocate Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Rep. Rick Boucher (R-Va.).

The shield law was introduced in May with high hopes for the bipartisan effort that has a companion bill in the Senate, which has the backing of House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.). The vast majority of states have shield laws or court decisions that protect journalists, but numerous efforts to pass a national law have fallen short, including an effort in 2005.

That Senate bill, S. 1267, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month, although there were apparently still some questions about how a journalist is to be defined. According to the Society of Professional Journalists, Sen. John Cornwyn (R-Texas). a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who spoke at the SPJ’s annual conference soon after the vote, asked for journalists’ help in determining “exactly who is a journalist.”

The Bush administration has strongly opposed the shield law, with one Justice Department witness saying last fall that the department is not out to get the media, but that the law was too burdensome given the fight against terrorism.

The Oct. 16 floor vote comes on the second day of National Freedom of Speech Week, a weeklong celebration of the rights, and challenges to those rights, of journalists and others under the First Amendment.