June 21, 2023

Wyden, Lee and Durbin 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; Kiley and Raskin to Introduce House Companion Bill

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., today  introduced bipartisan, 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 senators introduced the Protect Reporters from Exploitive State Spying (PRESS) Act in response to multiple examples, in both Democratic and Republican administrations, of law-enforcement agencies secretly subpoenaing emails and phone records from reporters in order to determine their sources. 

“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,” Wyden said. “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. 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,” said Lee. “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 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.” 

Reps. Kevin Kiley, R-Calif., and Jamie Raskin, D-Md., will introduce companion legislation in the House of Representatives. The bill passed the House unanimously in the previous Congress. 

 “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.”

 “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.”

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.

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.

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

Seth Stern, Director of Advocacy, Freedom of the Press Foundation: "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. The PRESS Act protects all journalists, regardless of political leanings or establishment credentials, from government surveillance and overreach." 

Daniel Schuman, policy director, Demand Progress: "Freedom of the press is built upon the idea that journalists can report the news without fear or favor. 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."

Nadine Farid Johnson, Managing Director of PEN America Washington and Free Expression Programs: “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. 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.

Jenna Leventoff, Senior Policy Counsel, ACLU: "In order for journalists to continue to inform the public and maintain their independence, they need access to information from confidential sources. 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 Senator Wyden, Lee and Durbin and Representatives Raskin and Kiley for their efforts to protect freedom of the press.” 

Danielle Coffey, News/Media Alliance President & CEO: “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. 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.”

Read the bill text here and a summary here.


Press Contact: Keith Chu