Shield bill is a vote for freedom of the press
It might be due to the ongoing IRS controversy that the Justice Department's seizure of Associated Press phone records recorded a second-tier level of outrage in Congress. Or, it might be because so many members of Congress don't care about freedom of the press.
The news media, after all, often are a favorite whipping boy for members of the executive and legislative branches. So, when the DOJ seized AP records without advanced notice, denying the news agency the opportunity to contest the seizure in court, legislators who repeatedly have killed bills for a federal media shield law couldn't, as a practical matter, have much to say.
Fortunately, those lawmakers will get another chance to help balance access to information against those rare situations when government secrecy truly is warranted.
President Obama has asked some senators to reintroduce the Free Flow of Information Act, the media shield law that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, 15-4, but never came to a vote after the Wikileaks revelations of federal data in 2010. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York will do so and a version will be introduced in the House.
The seized AP records apparently are related to its report of a failed Yemeni terrorist plan to attack commercial aircraft. The AP had held that story for five days at the request of the CIA. The DOJ apparently is in pursuit of leakers rather than terrorists.
It's not clear whether 2009 bill would have precluded the DOJ action in this case. The bill does not grant a blanket shield for journalists to maintain the anonymity of sources; there is a huge exception for national security investigations. It would, however, allow for subpoenas to be contested in most cases.
The new bill resembles shield laws in most states, and is weaker than Pennsylvania's law, which is one of the strongest.
Lawmakers who truly believe in press freedom should vote for the shield bill.