Some student journalists covered under proposed federal shield law, senators' aides say

A federal bill that would give journalists the ability to protect the identities of confidential sources would also apply to paid student reporters, senators' aides say. But the many student journalists who do not get paid for their work might not be covered under the bill.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., last month introduced the Free Flow of Information Act of 2006, a federal reporters’ shield law. The bill, which is currently awaiting a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would protect reporters in federal courts from subpoenas that would lead to the compelled disclosure of the identities of confidential sources. A similar bill is making its way through the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee and may be heard sometime next month.

Mark Hayes, deputy press secretary for Lugar, said the primary intent of the Senate bill is to protect

“professional” journalists from being subpoenaed, although he said paid student reporters could be included under the bill’s definition of “journalist.”

“The definition says ‘salaried employees or independent contractors for newspapers,’ so ... then if they [students] are contracted to write the stories, then according to this definition, they would be covered,” Hayes said.

The complete definition of “journalist” under the Senate’s bill is “a person who, for financial gain or livelihood, is engaged in gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting or publishing news or information as a salaried employee or independent contractor for a newspaper, news journal, news agency, book publisher, press association, wire service, radio or television station, network, magazine, Internet news service or other professional medium or agency which has one of its regular functions the procession and researching of news or information intended for dissemination to the public.”

Colleen Flanagan, deputy press secretary for one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said Dodd had wanted to make the language more precise so that student journalists would be universally included.

“The language as it stands is fairly ambiguous,” Flanagan said. “Some students are covered because they are paid. But like I said, it is very ambiguous. We did try to push for stronger language to make it clear that students and other non-traditional journalists would be covered. We fought for the language, but unfortunately it was not accepted by the others involved.”

Dodd, as well as Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., signed on to co-sponsor the bill on May 18, the day it was introduced. Representatives from the remaining senators’ offices did not return calls for comment.

Neil Ralston, a campus adviser-at-large for the Society of Professional Journalists, said SPJ has pushed for a federal shield law. He said he thinks such laws do not necessarily need to include “student journalists” specifically in their language, because the term is already implied.

“As far as the Society of Professional Journalists is concerned, we’ve never tried to make a distinction between journalists and student journalists in our attempt to get shield laws passed,” he said. “For our purposes we see journalists and student journalists as the same.”

The Senate legislation would provide journalists with a “qualified” privilege, rather than an “absolute” privilege, because there are some exceptions to the protections that the bill provides. The bill states that before a judge may subpoena a journalist to obtain an anonymous source’s identity or other information obtained under the promise of confidentiality, investigators must present “clear and convincing evidence” that they have “exhausted alternative sources of the information,” that

“nondisclosure of the information would be contrary to the public interest” and that “there are reasonable grounds ... to believe that a crime has occurred and that the information sought is critical to the investigation or prosecution.”

The Senate bill does not protect from subpoena any unpublished material gathered from non-confidential sources.

The House bill would give qualified protection to journalists for all unpublished material and absolute protection for confidential sources, except when “such a source is necessary to prevent imminent and actual harm to national security.”

If signed into law, the federal bill would become the first to apply the reporters’ privilege to the national level. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have shield laws to protect journalists within their jurisdictions.

Connecticut became the 32nd state to enact such a law earlier this month when a shield bill was signed into law. Rep. James Spallone, D-Essex, the author of the “Act Concerning Freedom of the Press,” said that although the law does not mention student journalists specifically, the language of the law is broad enough to include them.

“I would say that students are covered because a student would be an ‘agent’ of a newspaper or magazine or other periodical...,” he said. “It was certainly not my intention to exclude student journalists. I was a student journalist myself.”

The Connecticut law will provide journalists with qualified protection, but Spallone said he originally proposed an absolute shield law for confidential sources that would have protected journalists from subpoena under any circumstances. This version of the bill originally passed in the Connecticut House of Representatives, but Spallone said it was changed out of a compromise in the state Senate.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed the bill June 6.

news, Washington D.C.