WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed the first federal shield law for journalists by a margin large enough to override a threatened White House veto.
The Free Flow of Information Act passed 398-21. It would largely preclude reporters from being forced to disclose the names of anonymous sources under subpoena.
News organizations have long sought a federal law to help them protect sources who have provided information for groundbreaking stories in the public interest on Watergate, the Enron scandal and the use of steroids in baseball.
Currently, 33 states and the District of Columbia have similar laws, including Nevada. With the exception of Wyoming, states without shield laws use other court precedents to protect journalist’s sources.
“Nearly all states have some shield for journalists and the protection of sources. However, that protection is lacking at the federal level,” said House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Much like the state laws, the federal bill grants reporters qualified protections. They could still be made to testify about their sources to prevent serious injury or death, or if they witnessed illegal activity.
They also could be made to disclose the identity of someone leaking trade secrets and personal or health care information.
It also would allow the government to compel testimony from journalists on issues related to national security.
Reps. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., and Jon Porter and Dean Heller, both R-Nev., voted for the bill.
All but one Democrat, plus 176 Republicans voted for passage despite the veto threat, including Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
“This legislation strikes a careful balance by protecting journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources unless there is a significant threat to our national security,” Berkley said during a 90 minute debate.
Before the vote, the White House issued a statement threatening a veto. It said the bill would set the bar too high for the government to pursue investigations.
The act would “produce immediate harm to national security and law enforcement” and would create an “unreasonable and unjustified evidentiary burden” for prosecutors, the White House said.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, cited opposition from the Bush administration as proof that “the stakes are too high in a post 9/11 world to support the act.”
If President Bush does veto the bill, a two-thirds vote would be required to override, 290 votes if all members were present.
A similar bill has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and is awaiting final votes in the Senate.