Sen. Durbin should advance the PRESS Act before time runs out

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Senator Durbin, wearing a black suit and a red patterned tie, stands at a microphone in front of a blue background.

Sen. Dick Durbin, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, can advance First Amendment rights by scheduling the PRESS Act for a markup. Sen. Durbin by Center for American Progress Action Fund is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Sen. Dick Durbin has a rare chance to strengthen freedom of the press right now by advancing the bipartisan PRESS Act, a bill to protect journalist-source confidentiality at the federal level. Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) has called it the “strongest shield bill we’ve ever seen” and “the most important press freedom bill in modern times.”

But Durbin needs to act quickly. Today, a coalition of 132 civil liberties and journalism organizations and individual law professors and media lawyers wrote to Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and ranking member Sen. Lindsey Graham, urging them to schedule a markup of the PRESS Act right away.

'The PRESS Act has long been needed and the time to enact it is now,' said Floyd Abrams.

Among the signers is acclaimed First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who said that “The PRESS Act has long been needed and the time to enact it is now.”

Another noteworthy endorser is the Marion County Record. Last year, a baseless and retaliatory police raid of the Record’s newsroom and the home of its publisher, Eric Meyer, made national headlines. Meyer was an associate professor of journalism and associate dean of the College of Media at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for over 25 years.

Meyer said the Record signed the letter because:

'Clear protections like those in the PRESS Act would block future attempts to trample on the First Amendment in ways that once were unfathomable to all who support democracy,' said Eric Meyer, Marion County Record.

As last summer’s raid on the Marion County Record proved, freedom of expression faces unprecedented challenges from unscrupulous people willing to weaponize the justice system to bully and retaliate against those attempting to report truth. Existing remedies might be fine for huge media organizations, but community journalists and people like the students I used to teach at the University of Illinois shouldn’t have their rights be dependent on whether they can afford to hire massive legal teams. Clear protections like those in the PRESS Act would block future attempts to trample on the First Amendment in ways that once were unfathomable to all who support democracy.

Other organizational signers include the American Civil Liberties Union, FPF, Illinois Press Association, and Chicago Headline Club.

Durbin and Graham are already co-sponsors of the legislation, with Durbin announcing his support for the bill in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2022. But, as the letter explains, if the Senate Judiciary Committee does not review the bill in the next couple of weeks, the clock could run out.

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FPF director of advocacy and Illinois resident Seth Stern said:

Illinois news outlets are giving everything they’ve got to make sure that people are informed about what’s happening in their communities.

Yet journalists and whistleblowers in Illinois remain vulnerable to invasive subpoenas demanding that reporters burn their sources. Our federal appellate court is one of the few that doesn’t recognize a journalist-source privilege. That means everyone from prosecutors to private plaintiffs can haul reporters into federal court and demand to know who they’re talking to and what information they have. Whistleblowers don’t talk to journalists when they’re afraid of being outed, and the result is that official misconduct goes unchecked and important stories go untold.

Sen. Durbin can change that. He already supports the PRESS Act and should advance it through the Judiciary Committee so it can become the law of the land.

“The Senate should not squander this rare opportunity to defend the First Amendment and protect press freedom through bipartisan legislation. The PRESS Act is bipartisan, commonsense legislation that would protect journalists, sources, and Americans’ right to know, said FPF Executive Director Trevor Timm, a Springfield, Illinois native.

Clayton Weimers, executive director of Reporters Without Borders USA and a Chicago native, explained in a letter to the Sun-Times yesterday that Durbin can “help reverse the decline of American press freedom” by advancing the PRESS Act.

Illinoisian actor and activist John Cusack, a founding board member of FPF, has also written op-eds and letters in support of the act.

In addition to protecting journalists from subpoenas, the PRESS Act would shield them from government surveillance through their phone and email providers. It contains commonsense exceptions for emergencies: for example, terrorism and threats of imminent violence.

The bill was the subject of a recent congressional hearing featuring testimony from former CBS News and Fox News journalist Catherine Herridge, who has been held in contempt of court for refusing to reveal sources. “If confidential sources are not protected, I fear investigative journalism is dead,” she said during her testimony.

The PRESS Act passed the House unanimously in January. Durbin and Graham are joined by Sens. Ron Wyden and Mike Lee as Senate sponsors of the PRESS Act. Major media publishers, press freedom and civil liberties organizations and editorial boards around the country have endorsed the PRESS Act, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he supports the bill and hopes to bring it to President Joe Biden’s desk this year.

But he can’t do that unless Durbin, Graham, and the Senate Judiciary Committee advance the bill first. They should do so without delay.

Read the letter to Durbin and Graham here.

Editor’s note: The text has been updated to reflect additional organizations and individuals who have joined the letter since it was originally sent on May 30, 2024, and to link to the updated letter, dated June 4, 2024.

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