Amid a spate of fights pitting the government against journalists over confidential sources, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., proposed the legislation as critical to ensuring the nation's liberties.
"Democracy is premised on an informed citizenry," Dodd said at a Capitol Hill news conference. "A free press is the best guarantee of a knowledgeable citizenry."
Journalists contend the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which established freedom of the press, gives reporters the right not to divulge their sources. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have "shield laws" to protect the media from compelled disclosure of their sources and notes in state court cases.
But no federal law exists, and special prosecutors in a number of high-profile cases have aggressively pursued journalists. However, after a controversial 1972 Supreme Court decision that limited a reporter's rights, the Department of Justice made independent standards to protect the news media from certain subpoenas and most forced testimony.
Still, for violating a subpoena, fines of $500 per day and the possibility of jail time are becoming prevalent.
A television reporter in Rhode Island wasfor refusing to reveal who leaked him an FBI videotape of a politician taking a bribe. Jim Taricani of WJAR was found guilty by a judge after a 45-minute trial and could get up to six months behind bars when he is sentenced next month.
The judge has said that because of Taricani's health - the sentence for Taricani will not be more than six months in prison. Taricani received a heart transplant in 1996.
Taricani is currently paying $1,000 per day for refusing to reveal his source — a bill that has reached more than $75,000, according to the News Media and The Law magazine. Taricani Calls the verdict an "assault on journalistic freedom" and said he never thought he would have to serve time for doing his job.
"No reporter should have to pay such a terribly high price for honestly and legally reporting the news," WJAR said.
Reporters for Time and The New York Times have been held in contempt as part of an investigation into the disclosure of an undercover CIA officer's identity.
Around the nation, several reporters face possible fines or jail time for similar source protection, including in cases of the leaked identity of CIA operativeand a lawsuit against the government by nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee. has been sentenced for refusing to disclose information about his sources in the Plame case, but Taricani would be the first of this crop of reporters to go to jail on a charge of criminal contempt, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
"I admire him enormously for sticking to his word," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "If journalists start revealing confidential sources, they are going to be viewed as an arm of the government and government investigators."
Under Dodd's bill, the federal courts, legislative or executive branch could not compel a journalist to provide the source of information, whether or not that person has been promised confidentiality. That right would extend to a journalists' notebooks, photographic negatives and other material.
The bill says a court could force disclosure of news in cases in which it is critical to a legal issue, the information cannot be obtained anywhere else and an overriding public interest exists in the disclosure.
Lawyers who have handled First Amendment cases welcomed the legislation as overdue.
"The advantage of a shield law once and for all is defining the privilege and establishing what the scope is," said Kevin Baine, a lawyer at Williams and Connolly.
Dodd, the lone sponsor of the measure, introduced the bill in the waning hours of the congressional session, but promised to reintroduce it when a new Congress begins in January. He voiced optimism about gaining the support of Republicans and Democrats, noting that several states with shield laws are conservative, Republican-leaning states.