Senate Democrats

Reid: Media Shield Law Strengthens Public Safety And National Security While Defending Press Freedom

Washington, DC—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made the following statement today on the floor of the U.S. Senate regarding the Free Flow of Information Act:

“Not long ago I had a meeting with representatives with the San Francisco Chronicle.  Among those at the meeting was a sportswriter named Lance Williams.  One day, a man came to Lance and said, ‘Barry Bonds has been using steroids.  Other professional athletes have been using steroids.  I have the evidence, and I can prove it.’

“But the informant was worried for his safety.  If his identity became known, he knew that he could face jail time or even physical harm.  Lance did what any good journalist would do: he promised confidentiality to the informant, and then set out to investigate the information he had been given.  Those leads took Lance down a disturbing road.  A road that ended with the evidence published in the book Game of Shadows, which exposed the rampant steroid use in sports that we now know so much about.

“After Lance released his information, he was subpoenaed by the government to release the identity of his informant.  Lance refused to do so.  He and his co-author said that they would sooner to go prison than release the name of a confidential informant.

“The General Counsel of the San Francisco Chronicle’s parent company, Hearst Communications, was also present for my meeting with Lance Williams.  She told me that although the Lance Williams controversy has been the most famous of recent cases, since 2005, Hearst had been served with 207 subpoenas by federal, state and local prosecutors requesting confidential information about sources.

“That uncertainty puts a tremendous burden on the media and reduces the likelihood that whistleblowers will come forward with information.

“Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia already have laws that protect the relationship between journalists and their sources.  It is long past time for the federal government to follow suit.

“Our First Amendment right to a free press – a press able to pursue charges of wrongdoing in our government and society – is a critical pillar of our democracy.  It is what separates us from other nations and governments who are willing to accept liberty – but only to a point.

“The State Attorneys General of 41 states call upon Congress to pass a national Media Shield law, and today we have the opportunity to proceed to do so by voting to proceed to the Free Flow of Information Act.  For all of those who are, as I am, concerned with providing law enforcement with the tools they need to keep us safe, it is important to know that this legislation strikes the appropriate balance between the public’s right to know and law enforcement’s need for information.

“It is based largely upon existing internal Justice Department guidelines and provides for a qualified privilege for journalists who are subpoenaed to testify about their confidential sources – unless the government can show that there is no reasonable alternative source of the information and that the information is critical to a case.  And, this legislation includes exceptions to prevent harm to national security, acts of terrorism, or death, kidnapping and other bodily harm.

“I understand that the sponsors of the Media Shield bill plan to offer a substitute bill if cloture is invoked.  This substitute would go even further to address the intelligence community’s concerns about protecting national security and classified information.

“This is a balanced piece of legislation.  It carefully considers the needs of the media and law enforcement.  It provides what both sides want most of all: clear guidelines and certainty.  In doing so, it offers us the opportunity to strengthen our public safety and national security while firmly defending our right to a free and open media.”