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Editorial: Time is now for a federal shield law

The U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection June 2 of New York Times reporter James Risen’s appeal leaves him in the unenviable position of revealing confidential sources…or potentially going to jail.

Risen wrote a book in 2006, “State of War,” about the CIA’s failed effort to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. The government is prosecuting an ex-CIA agent as a result to Risen’s reporting and it has subpoenaed him, seeking testimony about his confidential sources.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that Risen has no right under the First Amendment or the federal common law to protect the identity of his source.

Even though U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder reportedly has said that “no reporter will go to jail for doing his job,” Risen faces other potential sanctions if he doesn’t talk, including hefty fines.

Last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee, after long debate and negotiation, passed the Free Flow of Information Act – a federal shield law. While 49 states and the District of Columbia have some kind of reporter’s privilege to protect journalists and their sources, there is no such protection at the federal level.

Since then, the bill has stayed on the shelf, as Senate leaders have declined so far to bring it to the floor.

The bill is bipartisan – its initial co-sponsors were Democrat Chuck Shumer of New York and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. There are 24 other sponsors, from both political parties.

The vote in the judiciary committee was 13-5 – a compromise was struck on one of the most contentious issues, who would be entitled to invoke the reporter’s privilege.

The bill allows the government and reporter to go to a neutral federal judge to resolve a dispute if one arises.

And it contains an exception for national security and prevention of various crimes.

The measure enjoys wide support. Virginia’s two senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, are among the undecided. We strongly urge them to support the bill.

Last year the U.S. Justice Department overreached when it seized the phone records of Associated Press reporters in DC. And last year, in an equally chilling moment, the department labeled a Fox News reporter as a criminal “co-conspirator” as he pursued a story about a leak. Now James Risen is getting the squeeze from the government.

It’s time to bring the shield law bill to the Senate floor and time to pass it.

To protect reporters and their sources.

And to protect the American public and democracy.

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