Assuming approval by the full Senate and the House (which one should never, ever assume), here is who the federal government will consider a journalist: Someone who works for or is an agent of a news-distributing entity, or has worked for such a place recently, and who is not one of the exceptions listed in the headline above.
That's a very brief summary of the compromise definition passed on Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The definition is part of the Senate's media shield law, a bill that would provide certain federal protections to journalists in the course of their duty. No such federal law exists; an effort to instantiate one several years ago, led by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, never became law following the Chelsea Manning leaks. The new push largely stems from the Department of Justice's widely critiqued collection of information from the Associated Press and its threatened prosecution of a reporter from Fox News.
[The committee defined] a “covered journalist” as an employee, independent contractor or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information. The individual would have been employed for one year within the last 20 or three months within the last five years.
It would apply to student journalists or someone with a considerable amount of freelance work in the last five years. A federal judge also would have the discretion to declare an individual a “covered journalist,” who would be granted the privileges of the law.
The definition also covers the editors of such journalists. It also offers a few exceptions. Terrorists are pretty clearly exempt, as are foreign agents. And then there's this. The definition "does not include any person or entity":
whose principal function, as demonstrated by the totality of such person or entity’s work, is to publish primary source documents that have been disclosed to such person or entity without authorization.
This shall be hereafter known as the "Assange clause."
The Atlantic Wire spoke by phone with Gregg Leslie, Legal Defense Director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, for his view on the compromise. "Our overall feeling," Leslie told us, "is that it's not perfect, but it's an improvement over previous versions of a shield law, and it's a step in the right direction." He was hesitant to go into much detail on the description, pointing out that doing so tacitly conferred on Congress the right to decide who is and isn't practicing journalism. At that point, he said, "it's almost like they're licensing journalists."
With the compromise language in place (softened from the original language which necessitated employment by a media organization), the bill passed on a 13 to 5 vote. It next goes to the full Senate, and then will sit at the end of a very long line of things waiting to be considered by the House.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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