Reporter Shield Laws Get a Boost in California

     SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - A bill aimed at giving reporters and news agencies five days' notice before officials can seize their records gathered steam with a bipartisan committee vote.
     Backed by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, Senate Bill 558 would extend California's reporter shield laws to any person or agency that issues a subpoena to a third party, like a cellphone company, data-storage provider or rental-car company.
     It requires subpoena-issuing agencies to give the reporter, broadcaster or publisher a five-day heads up before issuing the subpoena, leaving time for the target of the subpoena to either quash it or narrow the scope of sought-after information.
     Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, proposed SB 558, which passed its first policy reading on June 25 with a unanimous vote in the Assembly Judiciary Committee. Extension of journalist shield laws has been a hot-button issue for lawmakers in the wake of the seizure of Associated Press phone records earlier this year.
     The Justice Department announced in May that it had secretly collected two months' worth of AP phone records, including calls from 20 bureau and personal phones in New York; Hartford, Conn.; and Washington, D.C. Officials said they were probing the leaked details in 2012 of a foiled bomb plot targeting U.S.-bound commercial flights.
     Sen. Lieu's office noted, however, that the records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources in all of the AP's newsgathering activities for that two-month period - not just information regarding the foiled terror plot.
     AP CEO Gary Pruitt called the investigation "so sweeping, secretively, so abusively and harassingly overbroad" that it was unconstitutional. And while embattled Attorney General Eric Holder initially said he was "confident" the DOJ followed its own rules and regulations, he sang a different tune when grilled by Congress a day later, denying any involvement with the investigation.
     "With regard to the potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I've ever been involved in, heard of or would think would be a wise policy," Holder told Congress on May 15.
     California's current shield law requires that law enforcement give five days' notice to news agencies before hitting their reporters with subpoenas, but Lieu believes the Justice Department's actions show that the law needs beefing up.
     "The U.S. Department of Justice just gave a roadmap on ways to bypass the shield law by going after firms like telephone or communications companies that have personal and work related information of journalists," Lieu says on his website. "The people of our state and nation rely on the press to expose private and public corruption, to keep government honest, and to better inform our citizenry about the events that shape our lives."
     He added: "We chill freedom of the press at our peril."
     Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Martha Mendoza, who spent the last year working on an AP project that tests freedom of information laws in 100 countries, said the Justice Department's actions had a "chilling effect" on the AP's ability to do its work.
     "These records obtained by the Justice Department listed incoming and outgoing calls with work and home phone numbers of individual reporters, the general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for the AP's House of Representatives press gallery," Mendoza said in a June 3 speech to the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Has this had a chilling effect? It's unbelievable. Yes it has."
     The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press heads a media coalition of more than 50 news organizations that urged the Justice Department to destroy the AP phone records, and called on Congress to pass a reporter shield law at the federal level.
     In its May 14 letter, the coalition questioned "the very integrity of DOJ policies toward the press and its ability to balance, on its own, its police powers against the First Amendment rights of the news media."
     "In the 30 years since the department issued guidelines governing its subpoena practice as it relates to phone records from journalists, none of us can remember an instance where such an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials was deployed by the department, particularly without notice to the affected reporters or an opportunity to seek judicial review," the coalition wrote.
     SB 558 next heads to the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which could take up the bill after the Independence Day holiday, Lieu said.
     Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said the "bill will ensure that reporters will be able to continue to deliver to readers solid investigative stories about government activities without fear that officials can tiptoe around the reporters' shield law to access their sources and notes from the Cloud or cellphone providers."