by Christopher B. Daly
It’s no surprise, I suppose, that the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from a New York Times reporter who has been seeking to avoid being sent to jail for his refusal to testify about his sources. The ruling is a setback for reporter James Risen and for the entire enterprise of journalism as well. The reason: the high court cannot find protection for reporters in the U.S. Constitution.
The First Amendment famously says (in part): “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of the press.” As I have written, I believe that the First Amendment goes beyond the right to disseminate news and includes the right to gather news. In some situations, that news-gathering function, also known as reporting, may require reporters to extend a promise of confidentiality to a source. I believe that they have a constitutionally protected right to do so. (Actually, to be precise: I believe that you and I and the rest of the American people have the right to learn what the journalist can learn — that is, we are entitled to information, especially controversial, secret information, that will enable us to make good decisions about powerful institutions.)
Many people disagree. They invoke the ancient legal doctrine which holds that justice demands every person’s testimony — no exceptions (oh, except for the “testimonial privilege” widely granted to clergy, attorneys, spouses and others — plenty of people enjoy the right not to testify with no deleterious effects on society). Superficially, this makes a certain amount of sense. But it overlooks the chilling effect on both sources and reporters if journalists can be dragged into court and ordered, under oath, to break their word and reveal the identities of their confidential sources. The fully predictable result of this doctrine will be that the people will not learn all that they might about difficult, hidden truths.
And a word here about criminal justice. Obviously, the investigation, prosecution, and punishment of crime is an important value in society. I would not want to live in a society that did not suppress crime. But we must bear in mind that law enforcement is not a transcendent value; it is not so important that it can be used to sweep away all other rights and values. It has to be balanced against other important priorities (like being secure in our persons and papers).
I maintain that it is better for a handful of prosecutors to miss out on the testimony of a handful of people than it is to impose blinders on the press. I don’t want to live in that kind of society, either. Prosecutors pursue justice; journalists pursue truth. Those are both important, and sometimes allied, enterprises. But they are not identical, and when they conflict, my default position would be to privilege truth-seeking.
Also, bear in mind: prosecutors have plenty of techniques and powers that journalists don’t have.
–They have the power to subpoena (non-journalist) witnesses and question them under oath.
–If witnesses lie, prosecutors can charge them with perjury.
–Prosecutors have the power to induce suspects to talk by negotiating plea-bargains.
–Prosecutors have the home-team advantage in every courtroom in the country.
–Prosecutors have the power to get a search warrant and spy on suspects.
If prosecutors can’t solve a particular crime with all those powers (which journalists don’t have), then maybe they’re just not trying hard enough.
One implication of today’s Supreme Court ruling: until there is a new array of justices on the high court who properly understand the Constitution, I guess the only remedy is to support legislation (S. 987) to create a federal shield law for reporters. Incidentally, most states already have shield laws that protect journalists in state courts, and we have not suffered any terrible crime wave as a result. All those state AGs and DAs somehow manage to live with laws that uphold press freedom and balance it against the imperatives of law enforcement.