Press Shield Bill: WikiLeaks Exempt From Chuck Schumer's Legislation

Talks of Sen. Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) press shield law have resurfaced in the Senate once again. After the bill was initially passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee with 15-4 vote in 2009, the outrage over the WikiLeaks conflict caused the bill to come to a screeching halt in Congress. Along with Schumer, White House Press Secretary John Carney felt that the bill would “provide protections to the media” that have been lacking in the past.

A media shield law is one that gives reporters and journalists’ greater protection against having to disclose their confidential sources and information, even in a crisis. Under the provisions of the new shield law proposed by Schumer, media organizations would have the ability to challenge subpoenas issued by the government. The ideal shield law is put in place to foster a free flow of communication and greater transparency. The new bill aligns with the Free Flow of Information Act introduced by Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) in 2007 that allows judges to declare specific journalistic reports as “part of the public interest,” thereby allowing reporters to use confidential sources.

The bill states that if the government wants records from a press organization, the media outlet must be give 45 to 90 days of prior notification to possibly fight the request in court. Schumer, in attempt to distance the bill from the WikiLeaks controversy, amended the bill to state that the shield only applies to “traditional media organization” and not websites that serve as a “conduit for the mass dissemination of secret documents”.

The current shield law, although originally proposed four years ago, is an active response to the Justice Department subpoena against the Associated Press to obtain a large amount of calling records. The records were in regards to a foiled Al Qaeda bomb plot in Yemen that occurred in the spring of 2012. Attorney General Eric H. Holder claimed that his deputy, James M. Cole, was the one who signed off on the records yet he supported the subpoena anyways.

The government has had a history of spying on the press and constantly spying on media outlets under the blanket expression “national security.” It wasn’t until WikiLeaks' dispersal of classified government documents in 2009 that the government realized it faced new challenges in the Information Age.

This bill will likely pass; its goals are simply to provide greater protection for journalists and promoting freedom of information. The question that will remain is the role government will play in regulating on line media in the future. In the next few decades, print media will slowly fade away and news will come almost strictly through the internet. As this provisions of this bill and perhaps soon-to-be law become obsolete, how will the government regulate news of the internet, especially in a forum protected by anonymity?