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Journalists could soon enjoy greater protections under federal law.
A bipartisan group of US senators and congressmen united this week to reintroduce the Protect Reporters from Exploitive State Spying Act, or as it is more commonly known, the PRESS Act.
The legislation, which passed the House last year but did not get a vote in the Senate, would safeguard journalists in two important ways. First, it would prevent the government from compelling reporters from being forced to disclose their sources. Second, it would ensure that important data held by a third party, such as a phone or internet company, cannot be seized without notice and providing the ability to challenge the move in court.
“The PRESS Act is the strongest federal shield bill for journalists we’ve ever seen,” Seth Stern, director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said in a statement. “Its definition of journalist is broad, its exceptions are narrow and targeted, and it restricts subpoenas directed not only to journalists but to their phone and email providers.”
The PRESS Act enjoys broad support in the journalism community, with strong endorsements from a number of trade organizations that represent most major news organizations, including the News/Media Alliance, Radio Television Digital News Association, and National Association of Broadcasters. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union have also backed the legislation.
The move to tighten protections for journalists comes after the Department of Justice, under disgraced former President Donald Trump, secretly seized records from reporters at news organizations, including CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
In the aftermath of the revelations of the secret seizures, Attorney General Merrick Garland adopted formal regulations prohibiting such actions, leaving a carveout for only very exceptional circumstances. But those rules, adopted by the DOJ, could be reversed under another administration. The PRESS Act would solve for that by enshrining protections into federal law.
“In a world where information is power, the role of reporters as truth-seekers and watchdogs cannot be understated,” Republican Sen. Mike Lee, one of the lawmakers who reintroduced the bill, said in a statement. “Recent events, however, have cast a chilling shadow over their pursuits. Law-enforcement agencies have resorted to clandestine tactics, subpoenaing emails and phone records in an effort to unmask confidential sources.”
“Not only is this legislation imperative to shield journalists from unnecessary government surveillance, but it is also necessary to protect the public’s right to access information, hold their elected officials accountable, and actively participate in representative government,” Lee added. “We must seize this opportunity and ensure that the Fourth Estate remains an indomitable force in its quest for truth.”
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, another one of the lawmakers who helped reintroduce the bill, noted that “unnecessary surveillance of journalists makes it harder to bring waste, fraud and abuse to light, by scaring off sources and reporters who are essential to a well-functioning democracy.”
“Spying on reporters to learn the identity of their sources,” Wyden added, “is a finger in the eye of the First Amendment.”