WASHINGTON—On Thursday, Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, and others urged the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution and Limited Government to protect the fundamental liberties of journalists and their sources.

Advocates of a federal shield law argue that it would protect journalists from being coerced into revealing their sources, thus preserving press freedom and encouraging investigative reporting. During opening statements, Rep. Roy stated that the federal government has been criticized for infringing press freedom. This was recently exemplified by former senior investigative journalist Catherine Herridge, who was held in contempt in February for refusing to reveal a confidential source on a sensitive national security investigation. This has raised concerns about the prospect of a federal shield law. CBS News fired Herridge and seized her possessions, including source materials. The House Judiciary Committee passed the Protect Reports from Exploitative State Spying (PRESS Act), emphasizing the need to protect journalists and their sources from such attacks.

“Unfortunately, despite the House repeatedly and with strong bipartisan support passing some form of federal reporter’s shield legislation, the Senate has yet to act,” said fellow committee member Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa.

In her hearing testimony, Catherine Herridge emphasized the need for the bipartisan PRESS Act to end legal peril for journalists and provide protections for all working journalists in the United States. The law would prohibit litigants and federal authorities from accessing a reporter’s notes unless there is an impending threat of violence, such as terrorism.

According to Catherine Herridge, the First Amendment protects the press because an informed electorate is at the foundation of our democracy. She shared her experience litigating in court for two years and facing potential fines of $800 per day to protect her reporting sources.

“I fear investigative journalism is dead,” said Herridge. “I hope that I am the last journalist to spend two years in the federal courts fighting to protect my confidential sources.”

Protesters sat in the audience, demanding protection for journalists in GAZA during a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on 4/11/2024. The Capitol Police later escorted them out. (Laeba Hafiz / MEDILL NEWS SERVICE)

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said freedom of speech is crucial for a free society. A free press is essential for informed decision-making and holding the government accountable. According to McClintock, CBS has the right to shape its coverage, but government pressures can lead to biased coverage. These penalties endanger press freedom and the right to source confidentiality, which would impact the democratic process. Rep. McClintock emphasized that the Press Act is essential to prevent these incidents and shield journalists from unwarranted government pressure.

All witnesses testified to the need to defend journalists’ rights and freedom of the press. They stressed the necessity of such laws. Witnesses also emphasized the importance of investigative journalism in holding the powerful accountable and the difficulties in preserving press freedom in the face of legal uncertainty and political pressure.

“The press is America’s watchdog, responsible for serving the public interest by working to cover and investigate government and corporate abuse, overreach, and malfeasance,” said Mary Cavallaro, Chief Broadcast Officer, SAG-AFTRA. “Any form of government control over journalists could chill the instinct of potential sources to come forward and tell their stories to journalists, depriving the American people of critical information and the ability to hold those in power publicly accountable.”