The U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case of two journalists who face prison time for not revealing their sources to federal investigators has caused considerable concern in America’s newsrooms. The issue affects all Americans who value serious news coverage.
In this case, Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller were held in contempt of court last fall, reported Editor and Publisher, "for failing to disclose who leaked the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame."
"Journalists simply cannot do their jobs without being able to commit to sources that they won’t be identified," said Miller. "Such protection is critical to the free flow of information in a democracy."
Although every state except for Wyoming has a shield law protecting journalists’ ability to shield sources from investigators, this case was pushed by the federal government, which said those state laws do not protect reporters in cases of national security.
A federal shield bill was introduced in Congress earlier this year. Freedom Communications, the parent company of The East Valley Tribune and Scottsdale Tribune, supports the legislation, sponsored by Reps. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Rick Boucher, D-Va. It would provide an absolute privilege to protect sources’ confidentiality, but a more limited privilege for the information, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
A big question is who the "privilege" applies to — just professional journalists, or anyone who fills the role of a journalist, such as bloggers. In our view, it’s best to cast a fairly broad net, protecting anyone who serves in a reporting role.
The bill seems to achieve that purpose. Given the court’s refusal, this legislation should move forward quickly, or else many important stories will not be covered lest sources be reluctant to give out information and reporters be reluctant to collect it, knowing that it could lead to jail time.