In its waning weeks, the 117th Congress has a historic chance to pass legislation that would do more to protect press freedom than any bill in modern history. Already passed by the House, the fate of the PRESS Act is now in the hands of Sen. Dick Durbin, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who can make sure this bill advances closer to a full vote in the Senate.
The Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying (PRESS) Act, first introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden last year, is the strongest reporter’s shield bill to come through Congress that we’ve ever seen. It would prevent the government from spying on journalists in all but the most emergency situations and protect them from testifying against their sources.
After myriad surveillance scandals under both the Obama and Trump administrations, the Biden Department of Justice has just issued new internal guidelines that restricts the surveillance of journalists who are doing their jobs. Our friends at Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press called the rules a “watershed moment,” and it is certainly welcome news.
However, perhaps the most important provision in these new internal rules is the very last paragraph:
This section is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.
In short, these new DOJ guidelines do not have the force of law. They can also be changed at the stroke of a pen, or on the whims of the White House or attorney general, present or future.
Wyden’s PRESS Act, which we’ve previously endorsed, closely mirrors the DOJ guidelines and would enshrine these important press protections in the law. It would mean a future president could not go back to spying on journalists, like so many in the past have done. (Donald Trump just mused on the campaign trail about threatening journalists with prison to get them to reveal their sources, after all).
The PRESS Act would make these protections permanent and allow courts to hold officials accountable who break them.
The House quietly passed its version of the PRESS Act in September by voice vote, which means that if the bill actually comes up for a vote in the Senate it may be viewed as an uncontroversial and non-partisan issue.
But in the Senate, the bill needs to sign off from the Judiciary Committee before it can move forward for a full vote. Durbin, who has been supportive of press freedom and civil liberties issues in the past, can be this bill’s champion by quickly giving it his blessing in his role as Judiciary chairman. We urge Durbin to “hotline” — advance the bill without a markup by the committee — so it can be voted on before this Congress adjourns for good in January.
You can contact Durbin’s office and ask him to support the PRESS Act by calling 202-224-2152 or using this contact form.
If you’re unsure about what to say, you can repeat this language provided by our friends at Demand Progress, which also has a petition on the issue:
Sen. Durbin – I urge you to advance the PRESS Act, legislation just unanimously passed by the House. The PRESS Act would shield journalists from being forced to give up sources and block government seizure of phone and email records. These rights are absolutely essential in any functioning democracy.
If you are a resident of Illinois, Durbin’s home state, your voice is especially important. So please call or email Durbin’s office as soon as you can — time is of the essence. With Congress potentially switching hands in a few months, we might not see another opportunity like this in years.