More on the Press and Revealing Sources

In a previous post, I wrote:

There were two interesting court decisions today that each can be summarized as "the press does not have rights or legal privileges beyond those granted to any ordinary citizens"

A number of readers were confused by this, as we have always seen the brave reporter on TV or in the movies protecting their information sources under a "shield law".  Many states, but not all, do in fact have shield laws that give reporters some protection against revealing their sources of information under subpoena.  However, there is no such law at the federal level, and any state laws that exist do not apply to federal courts or subpoenas.

However, despite this lack of an explicit federal shield law, most media organizations argue that the Constitution confers such privilege on them anyway.  Per the NY Times, some judges agree:

[Judge Robert Sweet] explained that the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York recognized a qualified First Amendment privilege that protects reporters from being compelled to disclose their confidential sources

This confuses me - I have read the first amendment many times.  I see the stuff about freedom of the press.  I always naively assumed this meant that they had the freedom to publish any old bonehead thing they wanted, including criticism of the government, without any limitations by the state.  I never realized that this meant that they also had the freedom to evade subpoenas and cover up evidence of crimes, things the rest of us would go to jail for (e.g. Martha Stewart).  Does the fact that the same amendment refers to freedom of religion mean that priests can legally cover up wrongdoing?  Do freedom of speech protections mean that bloggers can hide sources from subpoenas?

I find the judge's logic, as reported by the Times, to be scary:

The judge, Robert Sweet, reasoned, correctly, that the subpoenas for the phone records were the functional equivalent of demanding testimony from the reporters themselves, and he took note of the important role of confidential sources in news investigations of the Watergate, Iran-contra, Monica Lewinsky and Abu Ghraib scandals.

In other words, the Judge thought that allowing the press to hide their sources was useful in some cases historically, so he created a new first amendment privilege.  This is the kid of action that irritates the heck out of me.  What the judge just did in this case is legislate.  He saw a need in society and created a new privilege for a class of citizens based on that need.  You may even agree with his logic - in fact, I may even agree in part with his logic - but it is not his job!  He should be saying: "I'm sorry, as useful as such a protection may be, I see no basis for it in federal law or in the Constitution.  If you think you need one, write your Congressman but for now, there is no such privilege".  UPDATE:  If judge Sweet needs an example, here is one from an unrelated case:

U.S. District Judge Henry F. Floyd ruled Monday that the president of the United States does not have the authority to order Jose Padilla to be held indefinitely without being charged.

"If the law in its current state is found by the president to be insufficient to protect this country from terrorist plots, such as the one alleged here, then the president should prevail upon Congress to remedy the problem," he wrote. (hat tip LGF)

Sounds a lot like my suggestion above, huh?  This strikes me as a good judicial practice - rule on the law as it is, rather than what you think it should be.  We actually don't know whether Judge Floyd thinks that it is a good idea for the President to be able to order terrorist suspects held indefinitely, nor should his opinion matter.

Another Update:  Professor Bainbridge has a good post on yet another case of legislating from the bench.  I am lukewarm on the death penalty in general and am opposed the death penalty for minors, but I still think the Supreme Court is dangerously overstepping its bounds here.  The majority opinion talks about practices in other countries and public opinion - what does that have anything to do with Consitutionality? Those are arguments for legislation banning death penalty for minors in the legislature, not for the Court.

By the way, the Times wants to be able to keep secrets, but gets pretty huffy when other people have the same privilege:

Some judge may have looked at the issue, but we have no way of knowing, given the bizarre level of secrecy that still prevents the reporters being threatened with jail from seeing the nine-page blanked-out portion of last week's decision evaluating the evidence.

I found one other point in this same NY Times editorial to be hilarious.  I have not really commented on the Plame affair, because I found it to be pretty boring.  In fact, it is telling that most discussion of the affair ended the day after the elections.  Anyway, I found this note by the NY Times pretty funny:

Meanwhile, an even more basic issue has been raised in recent articles in The Washington Post and elsewhere: the real possibility that the disclosure of Ms. Plame's identity, while an abuse of power, may not have violated any law. Before any reporters are jailed, searching court review is needed to determine whether the facts indeed support a criminal prosecution under existing provisions of the law protecting the identities of covert operatives.

There is nothing wrong with this statement in and of itself - in fact, I agree.  Its funny only because the Times was the one reporting that it was in fact a crime committed:

Officials are barred by law from disclosing the identities of Americans who work undercover for the C.I.A. That provision is intended to protect the security of operatives whose lives might be jeopardized if their identities are known.

Among those who have cried foul are several Democratic senators, including Charles E. Schumer of New York, who have said that if the accusation is true and if senior administration officials were its source, law enforcement authorities should seek to identify the officials who appeared to have violated the law. Mr. Schumer has asked Robert S. Mueller III, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to look into the case.

The Best of the Web pointed out this even more telling statement from a 12/31/04 NYT editorial.  Note the complete lack of uncertainty as to whether there was any crime committed (emphasis added)

The change was announced by the newly appointed Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who turned the case over to a respected career prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, the United States attorney in Chicago. Mr. Fitzgerald is charged with finding out who violated federal law by giving the name of the undercover intelligence operative to Mr. Novak for publication in his column.

Interesting to see how their perspective changed when the subpoenas landed at their door.  "Law enforcement needs to get to the bottom of this as long as, err, they don't ask us to help".


  1. Gary:

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Oscar DeMaria:

    Great information. You are really true in what you said. If you get a chance, you can check out my blog on privilege at

    Oscar DeMaria