Tom Cotton

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is seen at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. on July 14, 2022. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

Tom Cotton Blocks Senate PRESS Act Designed to Protect Journalists

"Sen. Cotton's hostility to press freedoms demonstrates exactly why these protections are needed," said one advocate, calling for inclusion of the bill in an end-of-year spending package.

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Republican Sen. Tom Cotton on Wednesday blocked the passage of a House-approved bipartisan bill that's been heralded by advocates as "the most important free press legislation in modern times."

The Senate had in recent days faced mounting pressure from journalists, press freedom groups, and others to follow the House's lead and approve the Protect Reporters From Exploitative State Spying (PRESS) Act, spearheaded by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.).

After Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Tuesday revealed in the Chicago Sun-Times that he supported fast-tracking the PRESS Act (S. 2457/H.R. 4330), Wyden took to the floor early Wednesday to try to pass the bill by unanimous consent and send it to President Joe Biden's desk.

Cotton (R-Ark.) objected, claiming that "the PRESS Act would immunize journalists and leakers alike from scrutiny and consequences for their actions."

"This bill would prohibit the government from compelling any individual who calls himself a 'journalist,'" Cotton continued, indicating scare quotes with his hands, "from disclosing the source or substance of such damaging leaks."

Wyden pushed back against Cotton's claims, pointing to the exceptions in the law that were adequate enough to satisfy all Republicans in the House, which advanced the bill by a voice vote in September.

As Durbin detailed Tuesday:

[In] considering the PRESS Act--and the shield from subpoenas and other compulsory legal process it provides--you have to think through the tough questions, such as: Who qualifies as a journalist? What information should be shielded from law enforcement? Should law enforcement be prevented from seeking evidence from a white supremacist or other domestic violent extremist with information about a planned act of domestic terror just because he or she occasionally posts to a blog?

It's questions like these that I've wrestled with for over a decade as bills similar to the PRESS Act have been debated.

That's why I am glad that today's PRESS Act--like recent Justice Department regulations issued by Attorney General Merrick Garland--accounts for these scenarios. It makes exceptions for information necessary to prevent or identify the perpetrator of an act of terrorism or to prevent a threat of imminent violence, significant bodily harm or death. And it doesn't apply to foreign agents, terrorists, or journalists suspected of committing crimes.

Considering the inclusion of those exceptions, Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, said of Cotton, "His reasoning is... specious."

Demand Progress was among the media outlets along with civil liberties, government accountability, and press freedom organizations that on Monday had urged Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to include the PRESS Act in the omnibus spending bill.

Highlighting that the PRESS Act would codify the Justice Department's recently announced reforms so they couldn't be repealed by a future administration, they wrote to Schumer that "it is crucial that you act before this Congress adjourns so that journalists do not need to wait another decade or more for the protections they need to do their jobs effectively."

Ahead of Cotton's obstruction on Wednesday, Freedom of the Press Foundation--which has been backing the bill and signed the letter to Schumer--published a piece by Seth Stern, the group's director of advocacy, explaining why all Republicans should support the legislation.

Noting how "conservative journalists are often targets of government surveillance" but also that "most harassment of journalists isn't political," Stern argued that this "strong anti-surveillance" bill "recognizes national security concerns" and would protect all reporters--regardless of politics--while helping independent and alternative media thrive.

Stern said in an email to Common Dreams that "the PRESS Act can still be included in a year-end omnibus package and passed this year."

"Sen. Cotton's hostility to press freedoms demonstrates exactly why these protections are needed," he added. "We hope everyone will contact their elected officials ASAP and urge them to move the PRESS Act forward."

In a series of tweets Wednesday, Freedom of the Press Foundation executive director Trevor Timm pointed to the end-of-the-year spending bill and the fact that a Boston Globe reporter was forced to testify in federal court this week despite First Amendment concerns.

"If the Senate passes the PRESS Act this week," he said, "this type of press freedom violation would become a thing of the past."

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