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Donald Meyers
Donald W. Meyers writes about open-government issues for The Salt Lake Tribune. He is also the site manager of utahsright.com, the Tribune's online database of public records. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists' National Freedom of Information Committee and sits on the board of directors of the Utah Foundation for Open Government.

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Utah Sen. Mike Lee leaning toward defining journalists strictly

Sen. Mike Lee, who is threatening to shut down the federal government in order to kill Obamacare, might not be adverse to signing off on a Democrat’s idea.

Lee, R-Utah, may support Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal to limit protection under a proposed federal shield law to journalists who have either drawn a salary or had their work published in a recognized publication during a three-month period.

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Brian Phillips, Lee’s spokesman, said Lee wants to see a narrowly drawn definition of a journalist, in order to prevent someone who merely dumps data on the Internet from being legally excused from testifying about it in court. He also said if Feinstein’s amendment can do that, Lee would support it.

Feinstein’s definition of a journalist, which she first drafted in 2010 after Army Pfc. Bradley Manning provided diplomatic cables and other documents related to the U.S. war in Iraq to the Wikileaks website. Feinstein’s push to keep bloggers and other amateur journalists from being protected by a shield law scuttled the bill then.

But it was resurrected this year after the Justice Department seized phone records from the Associated Press in an attempt to find the identity of the source of a story.

The Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Society of Professional Journalists and other organizations are supporting the bill, which has had one hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Those groups believe the bill should offer protection from testifying or turning over notes to those who practice journalism, regardless of whether they draw a paycheck.

Phillips said Lee was also reviewing the bill to make sure that it adequately protected national security.

The bill allows the privilege to be waived if it relates to a national security issue, such as a probable terrorist attack.

Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, said the bill’s supporters conceded the national security issue, which she said represents about 5 percent of the cases where reporters are hauled into court, in order to maintain protection in criminal and civil court cases, where it would do "enormous good."

In 2007, freelance journalist Josh Wolf was released after spending more than six months behind bars because he would not turn over unpublished footage of rioting in San Francisco during the Group of Eight summit meeting. Wolf’s case was moved from state court, where he had the protection of California’s shield law, to federal court — where no shield law exists — because federal money paid for some of the police cars that were burned in the riot.

Dalglish, speaking at the Excellence in Journalism convention in Anaheim, Calif., Aug. 26, said many people are shocked to learn that there is no federal shield laws, unlike 48 states that have either a shield law or, in Utah’s case, a shield rule.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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