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Reporters should be able to keep sources confidential

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Posted: Tuesday, July 19, 2005 10:00 pm | Updated: 6:16 pm, Wed May 16, 2012.

Throwing reporters in jail to get to their sources has a long and unfortunate history in this country. Prosecutors and plaintiffs' lawyers are going after reporters' sources and unpublished notes today, like never before. The California First Amendment Coalition estimates that in the past year, 70 journalists and news organizations have fought to protect their unpublished information.

New York Times reporter Judith Miller has been in jail two weeks and might stay there until October. A special prosecutor wants know who told her the name of a CIA agent even though she has published nothing about the case.

Rhode Island TV news reporter Jim Taricani served four months of home detention and was fined $85,000 for refusing to tell a judge where he got a videotape. It showed the mayor of Providence taking a bribe from an FBI agent. The prosecutor eventually found the leaker without Taricani's testimony.

Subpoenas have been issued to the reporters who took the veil off secret grand jury testimony in the sports steroid scandal; to reporters who followed the case of Wen Ho Lee, the nuclear scientist falsely accused of spying; and to those writing about the case of researcher Steven Hatfill, who is suing the Justice Department for leaking his name after the Washington, D.C. anthrax poisoning.

As the number of cases rise, so does the success rate of lawyers seeking information from reporters.

Time magazine's Matthew Cooper has testified after being released from confidentiality promises by two White House officials. A Cleveland newspaper refused to run two "profoundly important" stories based on leaks.

Until recently, the press usually prevailed in cases such as this. The change is historic.

America's first tussle over press freedom started as a source confidentiality issue. In 1734, Governor William Cosby attempted to silence attacks against him by the New York Weekly Journal. When a grand jury ruled that the author of scandalous articles could not be determined, Cosby ordered the newspaper's publisher John Peter Zenger locked up New York's Old City Jail. Zenger was accused of committing seditious libel -- publicly criticizing the governor. Zenger's lawyer was not allowed to argue the newspaper's statements were true, so the jury found the law unjust and acquitted Zenger.

Benjamin Franklin refused to name sources used by his brother's paper in Boston.

More recently, in 1973, Los Angeles Times reporter Bill Farr was jailed for 46 days for not telling a judge which lawyers had violated a gag order during the notorious Charles Manson murder trial. Farr told his readers that Manson planned to murder Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra.

Farr was released when the judge simply gave up trying to force Farr to testify. A change in California's shield law has since given reporters added protection.

Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia have similar press protections. But there is no federal shield law.

The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing today to consider this idea. The time has come.

-- Lodi News-Sentinel

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