Schumer predicts shield law will pass this year

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Charles Schumer. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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Sen. Charles Schumer told an audience at The New York Times Center this morning it was "very likely" the Senate would pass a shield law protecting journalists this year.

Former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller interviewed the senator as part of its day-long "Sources and Secrets" conference. 

"Are we finally going to get a federal shield law?" Keller asked.

"Yes. I think we are," Schumer replied. "I think the odds of getting a shield law passed are very large. It's very likely the Senate will pass a bill this year. ... We have the 60 votes. I think we're going to get the bill on the floor of the Senate and pass it."

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One sticking point in the bill was who is to be considered a "journalist" eligible for protection under the law, in a media environment in which news is being reported more and more by independent journalists and bloggers. The compromise, Schumer said, was that journalists "who have had some commercial relationship at some point in time" are protected. People who have never gotten paid for their articles are not.

Keller asked whether Julian Assange, proprietor of Wikileaks, would be protected under the law.

"If he had any commercial relationship as a journalist, yes," Schumer said.

Keller also asked about James Risen, the New York Times reporter who lost a federal appeal last year in his effort to avoid testifying in the government prosecution of former C.I.A. official Jeffrey Sterling. Sterling is charged with leaking documents in 2003 that the government believes led to Risen's report on American activity to sabotage Iran's nuclear development program. In January, Risen petitioned the Supreme Court to hear his case.

"Under our bill, Risen would have his day in court with an independent judge to determine if he had to reveal his source," Schumer said.

White House officials called Schumer last year and asked him to resubmit a shield bill, after the Justice Department was criticized for issuing broad supoenas to the Associated Press as part of a leak investigation.

The administration opposed an initial draft of the Free Flow of Information Act, but eventually supported a compromise version that would allow federal judges to protect reporters from subpoenas for information, if the judge determined that the news value of the reports exceeded the government's interest in uncovering the sources of a leak.

The legislation never quite recovered from the initial skepticism of the White House. It passed the Judiciary Committee, but failed to come to the floor for a vote. 

The Justice Department issued new guidelines last month for investigating leaks.

"The guidelines are some improvement," Schumer said. "They're not as good as the bill."