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Media Groups Have High Hopes for 'Shield Law'

Media organizations are crossing their fingers that a proposed law to protect journalists from having to spill confidential information has the political will to pass this year, after the Bush administration and Senate Republicans helped derail it in the last session. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a new version of the bill in the House Wednesday, calling on their colleagues to enact what is known as a federal "shield law." 

The law would limit the courts' ability to subpoena reporters for sensitive information, including the names of confidential sources. 

Media groups applauded the move, saying it would protect both journalists and whistleblowers. 

"The public needs to be able to give information to the media without fear of retribution," Dave Aeikens, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, told FOXNews.com. "We think that too often that the government has been coming to journalists as the first resort rather than the last resort." 

They're encouraged by President Obama's past statements in favor of a federal shield law. Obama co-sponsored the failed Senate bill last year. 

Attorney General Eric Holder also expressed qualified support for the law during his confirmation hearing. 

"I am in favor of the concept of such a law," he said, provided it allows the federal government to protect national security and pursue intelligence leaks. 

The bill as written contains exceptions that would allow the courts to compel testimony in order to help prevent terrorism and other violent crimes. 

But the Bush administration, including its Justice Department, came out strongly against the proposed legislation last year. 

Then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey and National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell wrote a letter at the time saying the bill was "unwise and unnecessary," warning it could have "dramatic consequences" for national security. 

The bill passed the House but got caught in the Senate. 

But House lawmakers are giving it another go. 

"This is not about protecting reporters. It's about protecting the public's right to know," U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., one of the sponsors, said in a statement. 

U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., said the measure would "assure a stronger underpinning of both freedom of the press and free speech." 

Aeikens said he understands that lawmakers are grappling with the economy and other more pressing issues, but that given the political environment "we're optimistic this might be our year." 

According to the Newspaper Association of America, 49 states and the District of Columbia provide some legal protection for reporters and sources. But there is no clear federal standard for federal courts. 

The group said close to 70 federal subpoenas were issued in 2006 seeking confidential information from reporters. The group said five reporters have been sent to jail since 2001 for refusing to name sources in federal court. 

The drive for a federal shield law gained momentum during the firestorm over the leaked identity of former CIA officer Valerie Plame. Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller was sent to jail for weeks for refusing to testify in the case. Time's Matthew Cooper narrowly avoided going to jail. 

Recently, former USA Today reporter Toni Locy was threatened by a federal judge with thousands of dollars in fines for refusing to disclose confidential information regarding stories about the 2001 anthrax attacks. That court case was later settled.