Now that Congress is back in session, free press advocates are urging lawmakers to reject portions of proposed “leaks legislation” they say infringe on First Amendment rights.
“There are real concerns to us related to restrictions on government officials from talking to the media,” says Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, one of the organizations opposing the bill.
The legislation was crafted to stop intelligence leaks to the media in the wake of recent breaches. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, introduced it in July.
It was approved by the committee and is now awaiting action on the Senate floor. If it passes, the bill would still need the House of Representatives’ approval.
Cavender calls the proposal “an overreaction by Congress. This bill tries to throw a blanket over everything and that’s not the way you deal with these things,” he says.
Journalists are upset about three provisions.
One would prohibit anyone except the highest-level intelligence officials from providing background or off-the-record briefings to the media. In doing so, the legislation would make it difficult for reporters to obtain information from individuals most knowledgeable about certain issues, opponents say.
Another provision would curb the media’s use of intelligence experts by banning certain government employees with top-secret security clearance, as well as former employees who have been retired for less than a year, from entering into contracts with the media to provide analysis or commentary. Cavender says that clause is of particular concern to broadcasters, who regularly use those kinds of experts on air.
A third provision could make it easier for the government to compel testimony from reporters.