Last week was tough on the First Amendment and many of the other rights
we celebrate on Independence Day.
Sadly, the Supreme Court declined to even hear the appeal of
The New York Times' Judith Miller and
Time magazine's Matthew Cooper. Both journalists have
refused to reveal sources to a grand jury. After the high court's decision,
Time, without Cooper's consent, said it
would provide his documents, a decision that seems to be without modern
precedent by a major news organization. The move by Time represents a new, chilling chapter in the Bush
administration's already rocky relationship with journalists.
Time said it would turn over
documents that would keep Cooper off the witness stand and out of jail. The
magazine will do so, said Time Editor in
Chief Norman Pearlstine, even as it acknowledges that the action will have “a
chilling effect on our work that may damage the free flow of information that
is so necessary in a democratic society.” The New
York Times, which thankfully did not follow suit, said it was
“deeply disappointed” by the Time
Time and Pearlstine concluded the
magazine had to honor the Constitution and the dictate of the courts. But
capitulation does not honor the Constitution or the tradition of press freedom
in this country. Nor does muzzling the press serve the best interests of the
American public. If journalists promise confidentiality only to have corporate
parents give it up, whistle-blowers will whistle no more.
Revealing confidential sources under the threat of jail time and stiff
fines makes it that much harder for the public to learn what its government is
trying to do—or, more importantly, trying to hide.
However flawed the practice of newsgathering can be, journalists serve
a vital function in keeping the public informed. What is kept away from
tenacious journalists is kept away from the American people.
If that weren't enough to put a damper on our Fourth of July, a
Washington federal appeals court refused to vacate the contempt-of-court
citations of four other journalists, including ABC's Pierre Thomas, for
refusing to reveal their sources—in a civil suit, no less.
Now they will have to start paying $500 a day in fines, protection money
extorted by the courts for the privilege of safeguarding the First
We don't force attorneys to testify against their clients, or
psychiatrists against their patients, or priests against their penitents, even
if that means some heinous crime goes unpunished. It is the price we pay for
protecting citizens from an overzealous government.
There is an urgent need for federal protection for the special
relationship between journalists and confidential sources that allows this
important check on government. All but one state—Wyoming, where the issue
hasn't come up—have either a shield law or a court decision upholding
Lucy Dalglish, of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press,
predicts that without that protection, “civil litigants and prosecutors will
find that the fastest way to make their cases is to go after the media. And in
the federal system, there will be nothing to stop them, and there will be
subpoena after subpoena after subpoena.”
Newspaper and communications unions are calling for two minutes of
silence in newsrooms around the nation at noon on Wednesday, July 6, the day
the district judge may impose a jail sentence on Miller.
After those 120 seconds are up, let's make some noise and get a
federal shield law passed.