Journalists hoping for federal protection from being
held in contempt of court, fined or even jailed for refusing to divulge
confidential sources will have to wait a bit longer.
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee blocked any further changes to the bill, specifically a suite of proposed changes agreed to in principle last week that were designed to garner more support.
The Free Flow of Information Act (S. 448) would create a federal shield law that would grant protections to journalists who refuse to reveal confidential sources, even when compelled by a subpoena and the threat of penal action.
Currently, journalists and their sources are only protected by privilege statutes or administrative rules in certain states. There is no such protection at the federal level, according to the Society of Professional Journalists. Last week, 70 media companies and organizations — including the Vermont Press Association — urged the committee to support the bill.
Vermont is one of those states without a media shield law, said Michael Donoghue, executive director of the Vermont Press Association and reporter at the Burlington Free Press.
In general, Vermont judges use a two-pronged test established by a state supreme court ruling when asked to force reporters to testify. First, the information in question must not be obtainable anywhere
else, and the information must speak to a person's guilt or innocence, said Donoghue.
"Unfortunately, there have been a couple of cases where the Vermont courts have rendered decisions that could provide a chilling effect on reporters in Vermont doing their duty," said Donoghue. "For 35 years, the system has been working fine, but that's not good enough."