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Judge upholds reporter’s right to protect sources
Question of the Day
Mak was sentenced to 24 years in prison in March after being convicted last year of acting as an unregistered foreign agent, attempting to violate export control laws and making false statements to the FBI.
Judge Carney, who presided over the case, had ordered an investigation to determine whether federal officials had leaked information from a grand jury investigation. Unauthorized release of confidential grand jury information by government officials about pending cases is a federal crime.
The case might not end with the judge’s ruling in favor of Mr. Gertz.
At the outset of Thursday’s hearing, Mr. Bratt informed the court that the attorney general had approved a grand jury subpoena to Mr. Gertz and asked that the judge stay his hearing while the grand jury investigated. Judge Carney refused.
“This fight may not be over,” Mr. Leeper said. But if Mr. Gertz is subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury, “we now have a judicial determination that the First Amendment interests here outweigh the need to know who provided the information for Bill’s original articles.”
U.S. Justice Department guidelines state that “all reasonable attempts should be made to obtain information from alternative sources” before the attorney general considers issuing a subpoena to a member of the news media.
The criteria for subpoenas require that non-media sources be able to verify that a crime has occurred and that the information sought through a subpoena of a reporter is essential to a successful investigation.
John Solomon, executive editor of The Washington Times, said, “We hope the Justice Department follows the judge’s lead today and recognizes the important First Amendment right in allowing reporters to have confidential sources so that Americans can get important news on issues like national security from good reporters like Bill Gertz.”
The Senate is considering a federal “shield law” that would protect reporters from the need to divulge their sources to courts.
A different judge might have ruled that Mr. Gertz must reveal his sources, said Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a journalists advocacy group.
The proposed federal law would eliminate the risk that judges could interpret the reporters’ privilege differently, he said.
“I hope it will inspire some members of the Senate to see the need for a shield law so that doesn’t happen again,” Mr. Leslie said.
The reporters’ privilege is a limited First Amendment right granted by some states and courts to protect journalists from revealing confidential sources. It is recognized by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and eight other federal courts. Thirty-two states have enacted shield laws that contain some degree of the reporters’ privilege.
Mr. Leslie called the ruling Thursday, “a solid victory for the First Amendment and the idea of a reporters’ privilege, even when a reporter is facing a grand jury.”
cThis story is based in part on a wire service report.
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