Impeachment blocks view of press issues for coming congressional session

Tuesday, January 12, 1999

For free-press advocates, the first year of the 106th Congress promises to yield the usual amount of press- and speech-related legislation despite its being “the most abnormal year” for federal lawmakers of modern times.

“My guess is this year is going to be typical even though this session of Congress will be anything but typical,” said Kevin Goldberg, legal counsel for the American Society of Newspaper Editors. “We don't know when the Senate will get around to anything. It has yet to introduce a piece of substantive legislation. The House has been tossing bills all over the place.”

Members of several press organizations met this morning at the Washington, D.C., office of the Newspaper Association of America to gauge the upcoming session. A consensus: The impeachment of Clinton and his trial before the Senate clouds any clear prognostication of the session to come as far as First Amendment-related legislation goes.

“I think that it's going to be an issue for the next couple of weeks, but I don't think it's going to go on for the next two years. I certainly hope not,” said Molly Leahy, the NAA lobbyist who organized this morning's meeting. “Until they get this done, the Senate is not going to do a lot of action even though they say they will.”

At first glance, free-press advocates say the year may not offer anything as significant as the Child Online Protection Act, which cleared both chambers last summer. President Clinton signed the measure, also known as COPA, into law on Oct. 21. The law criminalizes commercial online communication that is “harmful to minors.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and 16 other organizations have challenged the law in federal court in Philadelphia. The judge granted a temporary restraining order preventing enforcement of the law until the next court hearing scheduled for Jan. 20.

But COPA left much room for more Internet regulation, Leahy said.

“All COPA did is go after the commercial Web sites,” she said. “There's still e-mail and chat rooms and a whole host of forums where free speech reigns. Some legislators will feel the need to regulate those forums.”

Free-press advocates also expect legislators to introduce a number of privacy-related bills that could hinder newsgathering efforts.

Most visible of these measures have been anti-paparazzi bills — legislation designed to punish photographers who interfere with the privacy of their subjects. Such bills, press advocates contend, severely restrict the ability of the media to gather news.

ASNE's Goldberg said he expected lawmakers to introduce measures making it more difficult to access medical records, accident reports and campus crime statistics.

Goldberg said his group would work especially hard to promote the Government Secrecy Act, a measure introduced last session by Sen. Daniel Moynihan, D-N.Y. The bill would create a commission with the National Archives to declassify government records 30 years old or older.

The session also may bring legislation regarding cameras in courtrooms and an amendment to forbid flag desecration. But the impeachment makes it difficult to offer an accurate forecast.

“It's hard to look beyond the wall of impeachment,” Leahy said. “But we should expect to see some weird things to come up, because they always do.”