Lawmakers who fear the Trump administration is about to pressure reporters into revealing their confidential sources have an unlikely ally: Vice President Mike Pence.
Pence was in the House in 2007 when he cosponsored legislation called the Free Flow of Information Act, which was aimed at setting strict conditions for when the government can force reporters to give up their confidential sources. In a letter to lawmakers signed by Pence 10 years ago, the Indiana lawmaker stressed the importance of allowing reporters to do their work "without fear of intimidation or imprisonment."
"As Republicans who believe in limited government, we know that the only check on government power in real time is a free and independent press," Pence wrote then. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate.
Reps. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, are hoping Pence's support for the law in 2007 will make it easier to convince the Trump administration to refrain from going after reporters more aggressively in 2017. The two lawmakers introduced a 2017 version of Pence's bill this month, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions declined to agree that reporters should not go to jail for protecting their sources.
"I will commit to respecting the role of the press, and conducting my office in a way that respects that and the rules within the Department of Justice," Sessions told Raskin at a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
"We have not had a conflict in my term in office yet with the press, but there are some things the press seems to think they have an absolute right to [that] they do not have an absolute right to," Sessions added.
Sessions' vague answer followed an announcement from his Justice Department over the summer in the wake of government leaks to the press that seemed aimed at undermining the Trump administration. Then, the Justice Department said it was reviewing its policy on when to subpoena reporters who may know the source of leaked information from the government.
"[O]ne of the things we are doing is reviewing policies affecting media subpoenas," Sessions said in August. "We respect the important role that the press plays and will give them respect, but it is not unlimited."
That review is ongoing, but Sessions' response at the House Judiciary Committee was enough for Raskin and Jordan to introduce a new bill.
Under the bill, reporters could not be compelled to provide testimony or evidence obtained while doing their job unless a court decides that:
- The government has exhausted all "reasonable alternative sources" for that information
- The information is critical to a criminal investigation or prosecution
- The disclosure of the source is necessary to prevent an act or terrorism or other harm
- The public interest in forcing the disclosure outweighs the public interest in disseminating news.
While the bill might attract more Democrats given the Trump administration's threats against the press, both Raskin and Jordan agreed that more protection is needed for reporters.
"When the press is unable to do its job, the American people — and our ability to function as a democracy — suffer," Raskin said in November. "A free press is the people's best friend and the tyrant's worst enemy."
"From the religious liberty in our churches, to the free speech of students on college campuses, to the ability of reporters to protect the confidentiality of their sources, these fundamental American freedoms must be strengthened and preserved," Jordan said.