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Bill That Would Give Reporters New Protections Advances In Congress.

Despite laws in 48 states and the District of Columbia protecting journalists from being required to reveal their sources, there is no federal protection offering similar limits on law enforcement. But a bill that would offer new protections is advancing in Congress where, with bipartisan unanimity, the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday passed a bill that would prevent the government from compelling reporters to reveal their confidential sources or research files. The Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying Act or PRESS Act (H.R. 4250) would also protect journalists’ data held by third parties like phone and internet companies from being secretly seized by the government without the opportunity to challenge those demands in court.

The bill has broad support among journalist organizations, including the Radio Television Digital News Association and the National Association of Broadcasters.

“Broadcast journalists play a vital role in our democracy by shining a light on injustices, educating their audiences, keeping the public informed and holding elected officials accountable,” said NAB President Curtis LeGeyt. “The PRESS Act will protect reporters’ confidential sources and ensure that they can continue this critical work without fear of retaliation.”

The House version of the PRESS Act was introduced in June by Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-CA), who said Wednesday that the Judiciary Committee’s unanimous vote sends a strong message about core constitutional rights held by the press. “It is more important than ever to have bipartisan support for the protection of First Amendment freedoms,” he said.

The bill is now headed to the House floor where it could face a tougher road. Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jerry Nadler (D-NY) said that while there remain “stark differences” between Democrats and Republicans, he says there are bipartisan reasons for both sides to support it.

“Over the past several decades, Democratic and Republican presidential administrations have attempted to crack down on leaks of classified information to media outlets,” said Nadler. He said that included a Trump administration effort targeting the Washington Post, the New York Times and CNN, as well as an Obama administration focus on a Fox News reporter which went so far as to list him as a coconspirator in an espionage case.

A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate by Ron Wyden (D-OR) with bipartisan support. He calls efforts to force reporters to disclose the identity of their sources a “finger in the eye of the First Amendment.”

Sponsors of the legislation also point out that although the bill shields journalists’ communications records from the government, there are narrow exceptions for terrorism and the threat of imminent violence or harm.

“The Fourth Estate can’t speak truth to power unless sources are able to come forward and expose malfeasance without fearing for their careers or freedom,” said Seth Stern, Director of Advocacy, Freedom of the Press Foundation. “The PRESS Act protects all journalists, regardless of political leanings or establishment credentials, from government surveillance and overreach."

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