It’s a disturbing precedent.
Earlier this month, a U.S. District Court Judge issued a ruling that required former USA Today reporter Toni Locy to personally pay fines up to $5,000 a day for refusing to name sources in her investigation of the anthrax attacks in 2001. The judge also prohibited Locy’s former employer from paying the fines for her—virtually ensuring the former reporter’s
In Locy’s case, the reporter-turned-college-professor reported on the government investigation that named scientist Steven Hatfill as a person of interest in the anthrax scare. Hatfill filed a privacy suit against the government and Locy refused to name her government sources during the resulting investigation. The judge then ordered Locy to pay the fines—those are now on hold while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit considers the decision.
The Locy case is amongst a recent tidal change in how the courts see reporter-source confidentiality. In the past year, more than two dozen reporters have been subpoenaed or questioned about sources in federal courts. Reporter Josh Wolf spent 169 days in jail last year for refusing to comply with a grand jury subpoena to turn over video he’d shot of a San Francisco demonstration. New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail for refusing to name a source in an investigation to determine who leaked the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame.
At stake is whether journalists should be compelled to testify in federal court about stories and sources they’ve used in reporting stories for the nation’s news organizations. Journalists say that to do their job they need to be able to guarantee anonymity to sources, particularly in high-level cases. However, parties in lawsuits feel that they deserve the best defense possible and therefore, should be able to compel reporters to testify who’ve they’ve spoken with and what’s been said.
Confidential sources are imperative for breaking big stories. Would the Watergate scandal been exposed without the help of Deep Throat? Would we know as we much as we do today about the inner-workings of our government without unnamed government sources? Compelling reporters to testify about their sources will only serve to curb the flow of information to the public—information that’s needed for citizens to make good choices for our democracy.
In the face of increasing judicial pressure, media companies across the country are calling on Congress to pass The Free Flow of Information Act to protect journalists and confidential sources in federal court proceedings.
The proposed law is based on Department of Justice internal guidelines, which have been in place for 30 years, and are designed to protect national security. The legislation is not a blanket protection for reporters. However if passed, parties seeking reporter’s testimony would be required to prove they’ve exhausted all non-media sources and the reporter’s testimony is essential to the investigation.
At the Crested Butte News, I believe confidential sources should be used sparingly and only in times of great need. But if need be, reporters, their sources, this newspaper and all others deserve protection under federal law. I call on Colorado’s Senators and Representatives to pass the federal shield law this session.