Raskin, Kiley Introduce PRESS Act to Protect Reporters’ First Amendment Rights Against Government Surveillance

Bill Defends Reporters’ Communication Records Against Government Seizure to Protect Confidential Sources and Promote Accountability; Wyden, Lee and Durbin to Introduce Senate Companion Bill

June 21, 2023

WASHINGTON, DC – Representatives Jamie Raskin (MD-08) and Kevin Kiley (CA-03) today introduced bipartisan and bicameral legislation to protect reporters and journalists against unnecessary government surveillance that makes it harder to hold the government accountable and harms reporters’ First Amendment rights. The bill passed the House unanimously in the 117th Congress.

The representatives introduced the Protect Reporters from Exploitive State Spying (PRESS) Act in response to multiple episodes, in both Democratic and Republican administrations, of law-enforcement agencies secretly subpoenaing emails and phone records from reporters in order to determine their sources. 

“Our Constitution provides that no law shall abridge the freedom of the press and inspires us to protect journalists against government overreach and abuse of the subpoena power,” said Rep. Raskin. “Our bipartisan PRESS Act vindicates the promise of journalistic freedom. I’m grateful to Rep. Kiley and Sens. Wyden, Lee and Durbin for their partnership on this legislation and their recognition of press freedom as a fundamental democratic imperative.”

“As acknowledged by America’s founders, the freedom of the press to report on and disseminate information is critical to our republic,” said Rep. Kiley. “Our bipartisan legislation further codifies these First Amendment principles into law and will mitigate infringement upon the Constitution by the federal government.”

Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mike Lee (R-UT) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) will introduce companion legislation in the Senate.

“Spying on reporters to learn the identity of their sources is a finger in the eye of the First Amendment. Unnecessary surveillance of journalists makes it harder to bring waste, fraud and abuse to light, by scaring off sources and reporters who are essential to a well-functioning democracy,” said Senator Wyden. “Our bipartisan legislation creates strong protections for reporters, with common sense exceptions for cases when the government truly needs information immediately.”

“In a world where information is power, the role of reporters as truth-seekers and watchdogs cannot be understated,” said Senator Lee.” Recent events, however, have cast a chilling shadow over their pursuits. Law-enforcement agencies have resorted to clandestine tactics, subpoenaing emails and phone records in an effort to unmask confidential sources. Not only is this legislation imperative to shield journalists from unnecessary government surveillance, but it is also necessary to protect the public's right to access information, hold their elected officials accountable, and actively participate in representative government. We must seize this opportunity and ensure that the Fourth Estate remains an indomitable force in its quest for truth.”

“The First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press is fundamental to holding politicians and others in power accountable,” said Senator Durbin. “Journalists rely on sources to ensure that the public has the full story.  I’m joining my colleagues in reintroducing the PRESS Act to ensure that journalists have the necessary protections to speak with their sources and do their jobs effectively without undue government interference.” 

The PRESS Act ensures reporters cannot be compelled by the government to disclose their confidential sources or research files and also protects their data held by third parties like phone and internet companies from being secretly seized by the government without the opportunity to challenge those demands in court. The bill shields journalists’ communications records from the government, with narrow exceptions for terrorism and threat of imminent violence or harm. Rep. Raskin has introduced this bill in previous Congresses with regular bipartisan support.

While 48 states and the District of Columbia have some form of shield law or reporter's privilege, protections vary significantly, and there is no federal shield law, and the state laws do not apply to investigations by federal agencies, such as the DOJ. Importantly, there are currently no legal restrictions that prevent the government from secretly obtaining a reporter’s records directly from phone companies, email providers and other third parties in order to identify their sources.

The PRESS Act is endorsed by: ACLU, ARTICLE 19, Center for Democracy & Technology, Coalition For Women In Journalism, Committee to Protect Journalists, Defending Rights and Dissent, Demand Progress, Electronic Frontier Foundation, First Amendment Coalition, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Government Information Watch, Institute for Nonprofit News, Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, National Association of Broadcasters, New York News Publishers Association, News/Media Alliance, Online News Association, PEN America, Project for Privacy & Surveillance Accountability, Protect the 1st Foundation, Radio Television Digital News Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Society of Professional Journalists, Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, Granitt, Illinois Eagle, J. The Jewish News of Northern California, Tucson Sentinel and Arizona Press Club. 

“In order for journalists to continue to inform the public and maintain their independence, they need access to information from confidential sources,” said Jenna Leventoff, Senior Policy Counsel, ACLU. “The PRESS Act would protect sources, and prevent the government from using surveillance as a workaround to this critical journalistic protection. We would like to thank Senators Wyden, Lee and Durbin and Representatives Raskin and Kiley for their efforts to protect freedom of the press.”

“Freedom of the press is built upon the idea that journalists can report the news without fear or favor,” said Daniel Schuman, Policy Director, Demand Progress. “The bipartisan PRESS Act protects journalists from retaliation by the federal government by protecting their ability to refuse to disclose information about their sources in most circumstances."

“The Fourth Estate can’t speak truth to power unless sources are able to come forward and expose malfeasance without fearing for their careers or freedom,” said Seth Stern, Director of Advocacy, Freedom of the Press Foundation. “The PRESS Act protects all journalists, regardless of political leanings or establishment credentials, from government surveillance and overreach." 

“The revelations of investigative journalists and the protection of their sources may be irritating to those in power. But journalistic inquiry allows citizens to hold our government accountable in the protection of our civil liberties,” said Bob Goodlatte, Former Chair of the House Judiciary Committee and Rick Boucher, Former Chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet. “Walter Cronkite said it best: ‘Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy; it is democracy.’”

“NAB thanks Reps. Raskin and Kiley for their bipartisan introduction of the PRESS Act, which would ensure journalists can protect their confidential sources,” said Curtis LeGeyt, President and CEO, National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). “As a cornerstone of our democracy, a free press is entrusted to investigate our public institutions and officials, hold the powerful and influential accountable, expose wrongdoing and fight injustice. The right to report the news without fear of retaliation, intimidation or oppression is fundamental to this sacred duty to the American people. Broadcasters look forward to working with members of Congress to safeguard the First Amendment’s promise of a free and open press and urge swift passage of this legislation.”

“The News/Media Alliance proudly supports the PRESS Act and commends Senators Wyden, Durbin and Lee, and Representatives Raskin and Kiley for their leadership and commitment to protecting a free and independent press,” said Danielle Coffey, News/Media Alliance President & CEO. “The PRESS Act will ensure that journalists can maintain editorial independence and protect confidential sources which are a vital part of producing quality news. We encourage Congress to swiftly pass this important bi-partisan legislation.”

“The ability for journalists to report freely without fear of retaliation is crucial to ensure an informed public, combat disinformation, and protect against repressive governance,” said Nadine Farid Johnson, Managing Director, PEN America Washington and Free Expression Programs. “PEN America welcomes the leadership of Senators Wyden and Lee and Representatives Kiley and Raskin in introducing the PRESS Act, which foregrounds these concerns by seeking to codify necessary protections for journalists whose work may make them subject to political weaponization of court-ordered disclosure of information. 

Read the bill text here and a summary here.