House passes PRESS Act to shield journalists from revealing sources. What’s in the bill?

The House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday to strengthen journalists’ protection of confidential sources from federal investigation.

The Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying (PRESS) Act would protect reporters from being compelled by the government to give up confidential sources and information.. It passed on a voice vote

The bill would also prevent their data held by telecommunication companies from being seized by federal entities without the journalist being given notice and having the ability to challenge the seizure in court.

The PRESS Act would shield reporters from court-ordered disclosures of these sources unless the information is needed to thwart terrorism, imminent violence, significant bodily harm, death and specified offenses against a minor.

“Liberty depends on the freedom of the press,” California Rep. Kevin Kiley said on the House floor Tuesday, “and journalists are often the first to expose government fraud, waste, abuse and encroachments on personal freedoms in a free country. We need to make sure that the government cannot unmask journalists’ sources without good cause.”

Kiley, R-Rocklin, led the effort to pass the bill with Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.

If passed by the Senate and signed into law, it would be the first federal shield law, which states have to let reporters conceal a source’s identity. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill. proposed the Senate version.

The legislation previously passed the House in 2022. Senators tried to swiftly advance the bill at the end of the 2022 term but were blocked from an objection from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and ran out of time to pass it.

Currently, 49 states and the District of Columbia have reporter protections via a shield law or similar rules. But state laws do not apply to federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Efforts to codify these protections comes after the Justice Department under former President Donald Trump secretly seized records from The Washington Post, New York Times and CNN, including in an investigation into whether former FBI Director James Comey shared information about ending an investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Biden administration Attorney General Merrick Garland adopted formal rules to limit the Justice Department from seeking reporters’ records unless they are suspected of committing a crime or working for a foreign adversary, or if there is an imminent risk of death or harm.

However, those rules have not been codified into federal law, meaning any following administration could abandon them. The PRESS Act would make them law.

The act defines a journalist “as someone who gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, or publishes news or information that concerns news events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.”

Many journalism organizations endorsed the bill, including the Society of Professional Journalists, Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom of the Press Foundation, First Amendment Coalition and News/Media Alliance. Employees of McClatchy, which owns The Bee and other papers, are part of some of the organizations that endorsed the bill.

“Our founders chose to enshrine the freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the Constitution, alongside freedom of speech and other fundamental freedoms, because it is a linchpin of republican government,” Kiley said.