Shield law stymied

A federal press shield law is hanging fire in the U.S. Senate, its survival dependent on U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.

Shield laws create a confidential privilege between reporters and their sources. Most states have laws protecting the privilege, including Nevada. (Besides reporters and sources, the state protects lawyers and accountants and their clients, physicians and psychologists and their patients, official victims’ advocates and victims, and several types of counselors and therapists.)

Two San Francisco Chronicle reporters, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, risked imprisonment over disclosure of sources for their reporting on performance-enhancing drugs in sports. California has a shield law, approved by Ronald Reagan when he was governor, but the Chronicle case was in federal court. More recently, USA Today reporter Toni Locy was found in contempt and hit with a $5,000 a day fine by a federal judge for refusing to name her confidential sources who had discussed a former Army scientist’s possible role in the 2001 anthrax attacks. Her fate is still unsettled.

The measure is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, an Ohio Republican. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has called for approval of the shield not to protect journalists but to aid in informing the public. Presidential candidates John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are all supporting the measure. The Bush administration is opposed.

The federal shield was passed by the House on a veto-proof 398 to 21 and has been approved in the Senate Judiciary Committee and sent to the Senate floor for action. That was eight months ago. Reid has never called the measure up for a vote, and the delay is starting to draw criticism. One Florida newspaper said in a May editorial, “Any law will test that First Amendment balancing act. So will the question of who is a journalist, given the millions of bloggers. The question now is why, given the strong support built over four years, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., doesn’t have the legislation ready for a vote.”

On May 10, the New York Times quoted a Reid spokesperson: “It is on our to-do list, and we hope to get to it as soon as we can.”