U.S. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), principal sponsor of a bill (H.R. 3323) that would create a federal shield law, said today he is hopeful the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the bill before year end and that he believes it is possible a final bill will emerge from the current Congress.
Addressing a conference of newspaper association managers, lobbyists and lawyers in Washington, D.C., Pence cited progress in gaining support for the bill in both the House and the Senate and said that he continues to have a dialogue with Justice Department officials over their objections to the bill. He considers it noteworthy that the Senate Judiciary Committee has held two hearings on the bill already at a time when it has had to consider multiple Supreme Court nominations.
"It is possible in this Congress to achieve some reinvigoration within the U.S. Code of the First Amendment freedom of the press," he said.
The success of the bill will turn, Pence believes, on what happens in the Senate, where U.S. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) has filed a bill (S. 1419) that mirrors the Pence bill. If it moves through the Senate, Pence said, he expects it will receive full consideration in the House.
Pence, who describes himself as "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order," made clear that he sees his support for journalists as consistent with his conservative values. "For someone who believes in limited government, the only check on government power in real time is a free and independent press," he said.
But he emphasized that he sees the shield bill as protecting the public more than the press. "This is about the public's right to know, this is not about protecting reporters."
The public's right to know faces its greatest threat ever, he believes, in the wake of the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. The prospect of four reporters testifying under oath against Libby "will send a tremendous chilling message across the fabric of American government."
Asked about the bill's perceived lack of protection for bloggers, Pence -- himself a blogger -- acknowledged that the bill takes a traditional approach to defining who is a reporter, but he said that the definition will take in some bloggers. He named Matt Drudge as an example of a blogger who likely would be covered, but he said the courts would likely have to address the issue "on a blogger-by-blogger basis."