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EDITORIAL: Defending the First Amendment

Mainstream support for a reporter goes missing

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Seven years ago, Judith Miller, a reporter for The New York Times, became the heroine of a cause celebre when federal prosecutors demanded she testify to a grand jury investigating a White House leak divulging that Valerie Plame was an undercover operative of the CIA. The government demanded she reveal her confidential sources for stories she wrote about the leak. Ms. Miller refused, and she was found in contempt of court and jailed for 85 days. She became a household name and the poster child for freedom of the press.

Not as many people have heard the name Jana Winter. She, too, is a reporter who faces jail time for refusing to divulge her sources. The mainstream media does not seem to care very much. She is employed by the Fox News Channel, regarded as vile by the right-thinking people on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Ms. Miller was employed by The New York Times.

Shortly after James Holmes was accused of killing 12 people and wounding 58 in a shooting rampage in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., Ms. Winter developed an explosive story from two "law-enforcement sources" who confirmed that Holmes had sent a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado a notebook outlining his intention to commit violent acts. She reported that the psychiatrist never received the package. It was lost in the school's mailroom.

Arapahoe County District Court Judge William Sylvester had issued a gag order on relevant parties to the upcoming trial of Mr. Holmes. The two "law enforcement sources" that Ms. Winter cited may have violated that order. The judge demanded that she disclose their identities, and as a matter of principle and journalism ethics, she refused. If she continues to refuse to give up her sources, she could go to jail for six months.

In an affidavit filed with the court, Ms. Winter said, "In all of the time that I have worked as a journalist, I have always maintained my commitments to sources to keep the identities of confidential sources safe from disclosure. As a result, I enjoy an excellent reputation as an investigative journalist among my peers, and, as importantly, among the sources upon whom I rely to obtain information for my reporting. If this reputation were tarnished, it would severely compromise my ability to gather news, and would assuredly result in critical reports on public issues never seeing the light of the day."

The case has serious implications for both the First Amendment, and for states, such as Colorado, that have enacted "shield laws" to protect reporters from revealing their sources. Colorado's law requires a court to determine whether the information obtained by a reporter is "directly relevant to a substantial issue in the proceedings." In this case, it's clear it does not. While Ms. Winter's reporting demonstrated that the suspect had a desire to commit violent acts, it has no bearing on whether Mr. Holmes committed them.

If Ms. Winter is compelled to reveal her sources it will have a chilling effect on reporters' ability to gather and deliver news. The New York Times and other mainstream outlets have given scant attention or support for Ms. Winter's defense of the First Amendment. The Constitution, and Ms. Winter, deserve better.

The Washington Times

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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