Category Archives: First Amendment

Michael Mann, Mark Steyn and the court of public opinion

220px-Mark_Steyn

Mark Steyn

Mark Steyn is one of my least favorite pundits. But I also don’t like it when people use libel to settle disputes. It seems to me that the climate scientist Michael Mann has the public platform he needs to fight back against Steyn’s smears without having to resort to a lawsuit.

Nevertheless, I think U.S. Judge Frederick Weisberg, who’s presiding over the matter of Mann v. Steyn, probably got it right in deciding that the case can move forward, as Mariah Blake reports for Mother Jones. Ignore the hyperbole over Steyn’s loathsome comparison of Mann to Jerry Sandusky; the key is that Steyn wrote Mann had trafficked in scientifically “fraudulent” data. Steyn claims that’s a matter of opinion, but the question of whether someone committed fraud is something that is either true or not. And if it’s not true, then Steyn may well be found to have libeled Mann. The standard was set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co. (1990).

I should note that Jonathan Adler, writing at The Volokh Conspiracy, believes that Steyn’s statements amount to “hyperbolic expressions of opinion, not statements of fact,” and should therefore be considered protected speech. My response is that it’s a close enough call that a jury should be allowed to decide.

In any event, Steyn has gotten himself into a significant mess with his prose and with his mouth. He’s reportedly had a falling-out with one of his co-defendants, the conservative journal National Review, and he currently lacks legal representation as well. I can’t say I’m sympathetic. This is a guy who once called former senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam, “a beneficiary of the medal inflation that tends to accompany unpopular wars.”

But is this how we wish to decide public controversies? In court? There are any number of public forums available to Mann for him to defend himself against Steyn’s accusations, and those forums would probably provide Mann with greater satisfaction than a libel suit that could drag on for years. My advice to Professor Mann: Drop the suit and go on the attack.

Photo via Wikipedia.

NEFAC honors James Risen, a free-press hero

James Risen

James Risen

James Risen is a free-press hero. Whether he will also prove to be a First Amendment hero depends on the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Friday, Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, was presented  with the 2014 Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award by the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC), which is affiliated with Northeastern University. (I wish I’d been able to attend, but I was teaching.) Risen faces prison for refusing to identify an anonymous CIA source who helped inform Risen’s reporting on a failed operation to interfere with Iran’s nuclear program — a story Risen told in his 2006 book, “State of War.”

Both the Bush and the Obama administrations have pushed for Risen to give up his source, but Risen has refused. “The choice is get out of the business — give up everything I believe in — or go to jail. They’ve backed me into a corner,” Risen was quoted as saying in this Boston Globe article by Eric Moskowitz. Also weighing in with a detailed account of the NEFAC event is Tom Mooney of The Providence Journal.

My Northeastern colleague Walter Robinson, a former Globe reporter and editor, said this of Risen:

There’s no one anywhere on the vast landscape of American journalism who merits this award more than you do. It is hard to imagine a more principled and patriotic defense of the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, Risen has little in the way of legal protection. The Supreme Court, in its 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision, ruled that the First Amendment does not protect journalists from having to reveal their confidential sources. In addition, there is no federal shield law. Thus journalists like Risen must hope that the attorney general — and, ultimately, the president — respect the role of a free press in a democratic society sufficiently not to take reporters to court. President Obama has failed that test in spectacular fashion.

Risen has asked the Supreme Court to take his case, giving the justices an opportunity to overturn or at least modify the Branzburg decision. But if the court declines to take the case, the president should order Attorney General Eric Holder to call off the dogs.

The Stephen Hamblett Award is named for the late chairman, chief executive officer and publisher of The Providence Journal. Previous recipients have been the late New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, then-Boston Globe editor Marty Baron (now executive editor of The Washington Post) and Phil Balboni, founder of GlobalPost and, previously, New England Cable News.

More: On this week’s “Beat the Press,” my WGBH colleague Margery Eagan paid tribute to Risen in the “Rants & Raves” segment.

Net neutrality and the future of journalism

This article was originally published by the media-reform organization Free Press and is posted here by permission. Josh Stearns is the journalism and public media campaign director for Free Press. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcstearns.

Josh portraitBy Josh Stearns

Tuesday’s court decision, which struck down the FCC’s open Internet order and threatened the future of net neutrality, has huge implications for the future of journalism and press freedom.

According to the Pew Research Center, half of all Americans now cite the Internet as their “main source for national and international news.” For young people the number is 71 percent. While we are nowhere near stopping the presses or tearing down the broadcast towers, the Internet is increasing how we distribute and consume the news today.

The future of journalism is bound up in the future of the Internet.

That is why net neutrality is so important and why the court decision this week should worry digital journalists and publishers. For newsrooms the decision means that a company like AT&T or Verizon could decide where their users can go for news and what stories get buried or blocked online. Verizon could strike a deal with CNN and hamper their users’ ability to access alternative news sources. Comcast could slow access to Al Jazeera, because it wants to promote its NBC news offerings.*

That’s why, in 2010, U.S. Sen. Al Franken argued that “net neutrality is the First Amendment issue of our time.”

No journalist or publisher should be held hostage by the commercial or political whims of an Internet service provider. In the end, however, the biggest media companies aren’t likely worried about this court decision. As Stacey Higginbotham wrote:

In many ways this will be a win for the large content companies such as Disney or Viacom. Yes, they might have to pay for prioritization on the broadband networks, but they have deep pockets and such a move would help them ensure their content continues to reach consumer eyeballs as the television industry fragments online. It’s possible we could see the emergence of a pay TV bundle of content that is either exempt from caps or just delivered with pristine quality while YouTube videos sputter.

But it is not just sputtering YouTube videos we need to worry about. It is people’s ability to access the independent journalism and diverse voices, which have thrived on the Web.

In 2009 a coalition of nearly 50 online journalism innovators sent a letter to the FCC, calling on the commissioners to protect the open Internet. “Net Neutrality ensures that innovative local news websites and national nonprofit reporting projects can be accessed just as easily as legacy media sites,” they wrote. “Net Neutrality encourages journalists to pioneer new tools and modes of reporting and lowers the bar for citizens to participate.”

Net neutrality is about creating a level playing field for all voices.

In an ironic twist, when it argued against net neutrality at the federal appeals court, Verizon claimed it actually had a First Amendment right to block and censor Internet users. And while the court largely ignored Verizon’s First Amendment claims, its ultimate decision essentially gave Verizon the green light begin “editing” the Internet.

As more and more news and information moves online, we need to ensure that the flow of online information is free and unencumbered. Traditional battles over press freedom are critical, as the recent Committee to Protect Journalists report so clearly showed, but today we also have to understand that keeping the Internet free goes hand in hand with keeping the press free.

The court decision this week is bad news for the Internet and for independent media, but it is not the last word in this debate.

The Federal Communications Commission can reclassify broadband as what it is: the fundamental communications infrastructure of our time. That simple action would re-establish its legal authority and ensure that its can protect consumers and journalists from online discrimination. Protecting freedom of the press can’t stop online.

* Because of the conditions placed on their deal to buy NBC in 2011, Comcast has to abide by net neutrality principles until 2018 regardless of this court case.

NEFAC seeks First Amendment champions

The following is a press release from the New England First Amendment Coalition, which is affiliated with the School of Journalism at Northeastern University.

banner2The New England First Amendment Coalition is seeking applications for a pair of annual awards to recognize both private citizens and professional journalists who aggressively advance the people’s knowledge of what government is doing — or failing to do — on their behalf.

The Antonia Orfield Citizenship Award and the Freedom of Information Award will be presented at NEFAC’s annual luncheon Feb. 7 in Boston. Candidates for the Citizenship Award should have shown tenacity or bravery in the face of difficulty in obtaining information of which the public has a right to know. Both awards will be presented to New Englanders for activity in the six-state region in calendar year 2013.

Nominations for the Citizenship Award are due Jan. 8 and can be made by submitting these forms by email to rosecavanagh.nefac@gmail.com or by fax to 401.751.7542.

Rosanna Cavanagh, NEFAC’s executive director, said that the FOI Award will be a recognition of journalism at its best, working to bring the sometimes shadowy workings of the government into the light of day. Work in broadcast, online or print media is eligible. It will be given to a New England journalist for work that protects or advances the public’s right to know under federal or state law. Preference will be given to applicants who overcome significant official resistance.

Applicants for the FOI Award should submit their story or series along with a cover letter explaining the process of getting the story, why it was a significant accomplishment and how it affected the public. Entries, which also are due by Jan. 8, may be submitted electronically. The entry forms are here.

James Risen

James Risen

NEFAC will honor James Risen, investigative reporter for The New York Times, with the fourth annual Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award at the luncheon. Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who’s done ground-breaking work on domestic spying, now faces legal peril for refusing to disclose the source for his account of a failed CIA operation in Iran. The Hamblett Award is named for the late chairman and publisher of the Providence Journal. Previous recipients include Philip Balboni, co-founder of GlobalPost; Martin Baron, former editor of The Boston Globe and now executive editor of The Washington Post; and the late Anthony Lewis, longtime columnist for The New York Times.

The luncheon will be held in conjunction with the New England Newspaper & Press Association’s 2014 convention and trade show at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.

NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, librarians, academics and private citizens. We work in partnership with the Initiative for Investigative Reporting at the Northeastern University School of Journalism.

Swartz case leads Media Nation’s top 10 of 2013

Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012

Aaron Swartz speaking in 2012

Last January, not long after the young Internet genius Aaron Swartz committed suicide, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate wrote powerfully about the abusive prosecutorial tactics that may have led to his death.

Swartz faced a lengthy federal prison sentence for downloading academic articles at MIT without authorization. Even though the publisher, JSTOR, declined to press charges, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz brought a case agains Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. As Silverglate put it, the law is “a notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad.”

Silverglate’s article was republished in Media Nation with the permission of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, where it originally appeared. And it was far and away the most viewed article in Media Nation in 2013.

Today we present Media Nation’s top 10 posts for 2013, based on statistics compiled by WordPress.com. They represent a range of topics — from the vicissitudes of talk radio to a media conflict of interest, from Rolling Stone’s controversial cover image of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the sad, sudden death of The Boston Phoenix.

The top 10 is by no means representative of the year in media. Certainly the biggest story about journalism in 2013 involved the National Security Agency secrets revealed by Edward Snowden to The Guardian and The Washington Post — a story that did not make the cut at Media Nation.

Here, then, is our unrepresentative sample for the past 12 months.

1. Harvey Silverglate on the Aaron Swartz case (Jan. 24). Few people were more qualified to weigh in on U.S. Attorney Ortiz’s abusive tactics than Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator, who several years ago wrote “Three Felonies a Day,” a book on how the federal justice system has spun out of control. But Silverglate’s take wasn’t the only article about Swartz to generate interest in Media Nation. The aftermath of Swartz’s suicide also came in at No. 11 (“The Globe turns up the heat on Carmen Ortiz,” Jan. 11) and No. 13 (“Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz and the meaning of justice,” Jan. 14). In a bit of poetic justice, a project Swartz was working on at the time of his death — software that allows whistleblowers to submit documents without being identified — was unveiled by The New Yorker just several months after his suicide.

2. The New Republic’s new owner crosses a line (Jan. 28). A little more than a year ago, the venerable New Republic was saved by Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who is using some of his fortune to restore the magazine to relevance and fiscal health. But he crossed an ethical line last January when he took part in an interview with President Obama, whose campaign he had worked on, and tossed a series of softball questions his way. At the time I wrote that Hughes was guilty of “no more than a minor misstep.” So how did it rise to No. 2? It turns out that a number of right-leaning websites picked up on it, bringing a considerable amount of traffic to Media Nation that I normally don’t receive.

3. Dailies go wild over sports controversies (Aug. 30). Four months after publishing this item, I find it hard to make heads or tails of what was going on. But essentially Globe-turned-Herald sportswriter Ron Borges contributed to a Rolling Stone article on the Aaron Hernandez murder case, which generated some tough criticism from both the Globe and the well-known blog Boston Sports Media Watch. That was followed almost immediately by a Globe article on the ratings collapse of sports radio station WEEI (AM 850), which brought yet more tough talk from, among others, ’EEI morning co-host Gerry Callahan, who also happens to write a column for the Herald. Yes, Boston is a small town.

4. Rolling Stone’s controversial cover (July 17). I thought it was brilliant. I still do. The accusion that Rolling Stone was trying to turn Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into some sort of pop-culture hero is absurd and offensive — and not borne out by the well-reported article that the cover was designed to illustrate.

5. Glenn Ordway walks the ratings plank (Feb. 14). Ordway built sports talker WEEI into a ratings monster only to see its numbers crater in the face of competition from the Sports Hub (WBZ-FM, 98.5). Ordway was by no means the problem with WEEI. But station management decided it could no longer afford his $500,000 contract, and so that was it for the Big O.

6. A big moment for The Boston Globe (Dec. 17). It was actually a big year for the Globe, from its riveting coverage of the marathon bombing and the standoff that led to the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the paper’s acquisition by Red Sox principal owner John Henry. But two days in mid-December were emblematic of the paper’s continuing excellence and relevance — a long, detailed exposé of the Tsarnaev family that revealed Dzhokhar, rather than his older brother, Tamerlan, may have been the driving force behind the bombing; an investigation into a case of alleged “medical child abuse” that pitted a Connecticut family against Children’s Hospital; and a nationally celebrated series of tweets by staff reporter Billy Baker about a Boston teenager from a poor family who had been admitted to Yale.

7. The Boston Phoenix reaches the end of the road (March 14). A stalwart of the alternative-weekly scene and my professional home from 1991 to 2005, the Phoenix was a voice of incalculable importance. But with even the legendary Village Voice struggling to survive, the alt-weekly moment may have passed. At the time of its death, the Phoenix had more than 100,000 readers — but little revenue, as advertising had dried up and both the print edition and the website were free. I scribbled a few preliminary thoughts in this post, and later wrote something more coherent for PBS MediaShift.

8. The return of Jim Braude and Margery Eagan (Feb. 6). Eagan and Braude’s morning show was the one bright spot on WTKK Radio, an otherwise run-of-the-mill right-wing talk station that had been taken off the air a month earlier. So it was good news indeed when the pair was hired to host “Boston Public Radio” from noon to 2 p.m. on public station WGBH (89.7 FM). (Note: (I am a paid contributor to WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” where Eagan is a frequent panelist.)

9. Joe Scarborough grapples with history — and loses (Feb. 17). Asking cable blowhard Scarborough to write a review for The New York Times Book Review about the relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon could have been a smart, counterintuitive move. But it only works if the writer in question is, you know, smart.

10. The bell tolls for WTKK Radio (Jan. 3). As I already mentioned, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan were able to walk away from the rubble of WTKK, which was shut down by corporate owner Greater Media and turned into an urban music station. Just a few years earlier the station had been a ratings success with trash-talking hosts like Jay Severin and Michael Graham. But tastes change — sometimes for the better.

Photo (cc) by Maria Jesus V and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

‘Material support’ and the case of Tarek Mehanna

Tarek Mehanna

Tarek Mehanna

In today’s Boston Globe, civil-liberties lawyer and friend of Media Nation Harvey Silverglate explains in chilling detail the constitutional underpinnings — or, rather, the absence of such underpinnings — in the 2012 conviction of Al Qaeda sympathizer Tarek Mehanna.

Mehanna’s conviction on charges related almost entirely to his labors as a propagandist and translator led to the first of two Muzzle Awards for U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz. (The second was for her unconscionable crusade against the young Internet visionary Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide while facing prison for downloading academic articles without permission.)

Silverglate and his associate Juliana DeVries write in the Globe that the First Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld Mehanna’s conviction and 17-year prison term on the basis of a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. That decision, Silverglate and DeVries write, “allows federal prosecutors to bring charges for a wide range of expressive activities that supposedly constitute ‘material support’ to terrorists.”

Such a standard would appear to fly in the face of rulings such as the landmark Brandenburg v. Ohio decision of 1969, in which it was held that even vile, hateful calls to violence (the case involved the Ku Klux Klan) were constitutionally protected unless they were likely to result in an immediate conflagration. Silverglate and DeVries put it this way:

With the Humanitarian Law Project decision, the civic life of our free nation took a radical, though under-appreciated, turn for the worse. “Material support” is now a top contender for the American equivalent of the Soviet (now Russian) “hooliganism” statute, a notoriously vague criminal law that enabled the imprisonment of any opponent of dictator Josef Stalin’s regime…. A “material support” charge is a product not of our nation’s legitimate anti-terror concern, but of its overreaction and paranoia.

The Mehanna case was not entirely clear-cut from a legal point of view. He was also convicted of seeking (unsuccessfully) to join Al Qaeda fighters in Yemen and of lying to the FBI. But Ortiz went out of her way to prosecute Mehanna for his expressive activities, and his loathsome rhetoric was given an ample airing before the jury.

Mehanna is no mere Sudbury pharmacist, as his supporters would have you believe. But it is a fact that he is serving a prison term today because he expressed what he was thinking — an activity that is supposed to be protected by the First Amendment under nearly all circumstances.

Several years ago the late Anthony Lewis wrote a wonderful primer on the First Amendment called “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate.” Sadly, that freedom is becoming more and more a part of the past.

Booking photo of Mehanna in 2009 from the Sudbury Police as published at Boston.com.

Floyd Abrams throws a curveball

Legendary First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams delivered the Richard S. Salant Lecture on Freedom of the Press on Thursday evening at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. And it was something of a surprise.

Rather than railing against the evils of government censorship, Abrams instead chose to focus on situations in which he believes the media have abused their freedoms. He was especially criticial of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks — not a new stance for him, but nevertheless counterintuitive given Abrams’ fierce defense of the First Amendment.

I put together a Storify about Abrams’ talk, which you can view by clicking here.

Legislative committee debates shield law

180By Robert A. Bertsche

I attended Wednesday afternoon’s spirited hearing at the Statehouse on the proposed Massachusetts shield bill, before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary. The bill is titled the “Free Flow of Information Act,” H.1553, described as “An Act providing against compelled disclosure of certain information by the news media.” Here’s a quick account of the proceedings.

Bottom line: Passage is far from assured, but the bill got its most thorough airing in years. Longtime Boston news anchor and reporter Susan Wornick spoke passionately in favor of the bill, backed up by three media lawyers (including my partner, media lawyer Jeffrey J. Pyle) and Rep. Josh S. Cutler, D-Duxbury, one of the bill’s sponsors. The committee’s House vice chair, Rep. Christopher M. Markey, D-Dartmouth, was most outspoken in opposition.

Wornick, of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), recounted her ordeal of being almost jailed in the mid-1980s for refusing to reveal her confidential source to police and a grand jury investigating alleged corruption by Revere police. “I made this promise because this man had important information. Without his information, I could not have told the story, and law enforcement could not have done their jobs.”

“I was terrified,” Wornick recalled, but she said she received widespread public support for her courage in protecting her source. “People were infuriated that I was being harassed and demonized by law enforcement because I wouldn’t break my promise.” Ultimately the source identified himself in order to save Wornick from jail time. It was big news at the time; she received a standing ovation from a packed Boston Garden when she was introduced to the crowd at a Celtics game.

Susan Wornick

Susan Wornick

“We need a shield law in Massachusetts to that journalists can do their jobs,” she said. “Anonymous sources are crucial” to journalists — we all know that.”

Media lawyer Jonathan M. Albano followed. When he started working in this legal area in 1982, the most recent case on the subject was In re Roche, two years earlier, in which the Supreme Judicial Court noted that it might be beneficial if Massachusetts law provided reporters “more clearly defined protection against intrusive discovery” than existed under the common law balancing test then (and now) in force. With clearer standards in place, “news reporters and sources might be able to base their behavior on better defined expectations, thus encouraging informed expression,” the court wrote then.

“It has been 32 years since that case and there are still no definite rules in place to guide reporters,” said Albano, managing partner of Bingham McCutchen’s Boston office. “Today, whether a source will be protected, and whether a reporter will be required to testify about that source, depends on which judge you draw,” and that judge’s exercise of her or his discretion, he said.

Pyle, appearing on behalf of the New England Newspaper and Press Association (with 230 Massachusetts daily and weekly newspaper members), then described the provisions of the proposed shield law. “The bill provides much-needed clarity that would protect the future Susan Wornicks of the world,” he told the filled hearing room.

As Jeff explained, the proposed law would apply to “covered persons,” those working for “news media” and who prepared the information at issue in that capacity. “News media,” in turn, is defined to include not only mainstream and student media but also “any entity that is in the regular business of gathering and disseminating news or information to the public by any means….”

The bill offers a near-absolute privilege as to disclosure of information identifying any news source (whether confidential or not), subject only to an exception where necessary “to prevent imminent and actual harm to public security from acts of terrorism,” in which case disclosure may be compelled if disclosure of the source’s identify “would prevent such harm” and if “the harm sought to be redressed by requiring disclosure clearly outweighs the public interest in protecting the free flow of information.”

The bill offers a qualified privilege as to unpublished information, the disclosure of which may be compelled only if a court finds, after notice and hearing, that there is “clear and convincing evidence” establishing that (1) the information is “critical and necessary to the resolution of a significant legal issue” before a governmental entity, (2) the information “could not be obtained by any alternative means” and (3) “there is an overriding public interest in the disclosure.”

Jim Taricani

Jim Taricani

Jeff reminded the committee of Providence television reporter Jim Taricani’s four months of home confinement in Rhode Island for defying a court order to reveal a source; James Risen’s ongoing battle to protect his source for national security secrets published in his 2006 book about the CIA; and Fox News reporter Jana Winter’s battle to protect a confidential source for her story about the notebook that James Holmes sent to his psychiatrist, previewing the shooting spree that resulted in the death of 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colo. “In the absence of a shield law,” he said, “Massachusetts reporters face a real and imminent threat of going to jail” simply for doing their jobs.

Speaking for the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, attorney Peter J. Caruso Sr. told legislators that the bill offered them “the opportunity to provide courts, prosecutors, and litigants with “direction and clarity” as to the information that can be obtained from reporters.

Rep. Cutler, himself a former third-generation newspaper editor, assured his fellow legislators about what the proposed law is not: “It is not about protecting journalists — it’s about protecting journalism,” he said. It’s not the creation of a new evidentiary privilege, but rather the codification of an existing common law privilege. It’s not a “roadblock” to district attorneys, but rather “a road map setting forth the rules.” It’s “not a new, unproven legal theory,” but rather a piece of legislation already in place, to a greater or lesser extent, in 40 states. And it’s “not about helping media conglomerates,” but rather about “protecting the little guy,” including the small-town newspapers for whom even the “mere threat of a subpoena can have a chilling effect.”

When the floor was opened to questions, Rep. Markey, who worked for 15 years as a prosecutor in the Bristol County district attorney’s office, vigorously challenged the shield law advocates. He objected that the proposed law would deprive prosecutors of an important investigative and prosecutorial tool. He also lamented that as to identification of sources, the law would provide an undifferentiated privilege for reporters, the applicability of which would not vary based on the level of public importance of the issue about which information is sought. Markey said he believed the law would shift control of criminal investigations from prosecutors to journalists: “You’re putting the burden on government to show there are no alternatives” before seeking testimony from a reporter, such that a “journalist who hasn’t taken an oath is now the only person who has that knowledge” about certain criminal activity.

Albano disagreed, reminding Markey, “The journalist does not decide, the judge decides.” Markey retorted that the “clear and convincing evidence standard” to be met by those seeking a reporter’s testimony would prove a difficult hurdle to surmount. He ended with an emotional appeal, saying he is concerned about the law’s impact on “a 39-year-old mother who has a 19-year-old son who has been shot, and who is going to a wake that night,“ and who wants the police to do all they can to find her son’s killer. “You’re telling the police, ‘Go to everyone else, but don’t go to [the reporter]. “

Few of the other committee members spoke. State Rep. Sheila C. Harrington, R-Groton,  asked a few clarifying questions, but the committee co-chairs, Sen. Katherine M. Clark, D-Melrose,  and Rep. Eugene L. O’Flaherty, D-Chelsea, did not offer their views on the bill. As the hearing wound down, Sen. Richard J. Ross, R-Wrentham,  spoke directly to news anchor Wornick and saluted her for her battle to fight for her source 30 years ago.

“You went through hell,” he told her.

Robert A. Bertsche is an attorney and chair of media law practice at Prince Lobel Tye LLP. Copyright © 2013 by Robert A. Bertsche, Prince Lobel Tye LLP. This work is made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

28 years later, still thinking about a shield law

With Congress once again wrestling with proposals to create a federal shield law (see this by Josh Stearns), I thought I’d try to dig up an essay I wrote for the trade magazine Editor & Publisher in 1985 — my first published piece of media commentary. It took me a few weeks, but with an assist from a helpful research librarian at Northeastern, I tracked it down.

I read it with my hands over my eyes, but it holds up better than I had expected. Essentially, I believe today what I believed then — that the First Amendment is for everyone, and that professional journalists deserve no greater protections under the Constitution than does the average citizen.

The only real difference is that, currently, I support efforts to try to carve out some limited shield protections for clearly defined acts of journalism, whether those acts are carried out by “the large metropolitan publisher who utilizes the latest photocomposition methods,” as Justice Byron White put it in Branzburg v. Hayes, or by an unpaid amateur blogger.

SHOP TALK AT THIRTY
Reporters and the shield law — a differing viewpoint

Editor & Publisher, Sept. 28, 1985

By Daniel D. Kennedy

Screen Shot 2013-09-23 at 7.27.12 AMEvery few years a group of self-appointed leaders of the industry in which I work takes it upon itself to assert that news reporters have or should have rights that go far beyond those of the average citizen.

I suppose I should be grateful. I’m not.

Earlier this year the Massachusetts legislature wisely defeated a shield law proposed by a panel of journalists. The law would have given reporters the right to impede criminal investigations by refusing to identify their anonymous sources before grand juries.

The legislators showed courage — a trait that is usually in short supply in Massachusetts politics. The vote came just days after a popular television reporter barely escaped going to prison. She got off the hook when her confidential source agreed to speak with law-enforcement officials. [Note: I was referring to Susan Wornick, who this summer announced her retirement from WCVB-TV, Channel 5.]

The problem with a shield law is this: For journalists to be granted such a protection, an uncomfortable distinction must first be made between us and the rest of the American people. And the government, by necessity, would be the institution making that distinction.

Freedom of the press, as defined by the First Amendment, is a right granted to everyone. News organizations and their employees are protected no more and no less than the citizen who writes a letter of protest, circulates a petition or holds a sign at a demonstration.

When officials investigating a crime believe someone has information they need, they may compel him to tell a grand jury what he knows. The U.S. Supreme Court has clearly stated that professional journalists have no special privileges that would exempt them from this responsibility.

Those who advocate a shield law are tacitly admitting that reporters who withhold names from grand juries are breaking the law.

Other, more extreme press advocates assert that a shield law is not needed because the First Amendment already guarantees reporters the right to protect their sources.

But the First Amendment says only that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

All that means is that a newspaper or magazine publisher may print what he chooses. It would be difficult to read into the simple language of the First Amendment a clause that says obstruction of justice is legal when done by a reporter.

The Supreme Court, in Branzburg v. Hayes (1972), ruled that the First Amendment does not grant to journalists the right to keep their sources anonymous. The court had this to say about the consequences of a shield privilege:

The administration of a constitutional newsman’s privilege would present practical and conceptual difficulties of a high order. Sooner or later, it would be necessary to define those categories of newsmen who qualified for the privilege, a questionable procedure in light of the traditional doctrine that liberty of the press is the right of the lonely pamphleteer who uses carbon paper or a mimeograph just as much as of the large metropolitan publisher who utilizes the latest photocomposition methods.

A shield privilege, in other words, would lead to government regulation of the news business. Government officials would determine who is a reporter and who is not. The press would be made less free in the name of increased freedom.

The Supreme Court added in Branzburg that state legislatures are free to pass shield laws, and several have. But I think such laws are a mistake, and that legislators in Massachusetts acted properly.

At a time when the press is accused of elitism and arrogance, shield laws are another wall between us and the public whom we are trying to serve.

My views, I’ll admit, are not popular with my colleagues, most of whom favor a shield law. The concern they raise is that, without protection, they will not be able to do what is a normal part of their job. They fear their sources will dry up if they can’t keep them anonymous.

But shield protection has nothing to do with the way journalists usually work. Reporters can and do promise anonymity to some of their sources. The information these people provide — whether it is about an impending lawsuit or hazardous fill at a housing development — may be true or false. But in all cases their names may be protected.

Refusing to reveal the name of someone whom investigators need to question as part of a criminal case is another matter.

I would argue that a reporter should not promise anonymity to such a source and that he should cut short the interview if agreement cannot be reached.

But, while that may be a good guide for most situations, it is impossible to make a rule that would cover all cases. Occasionally a reporter may have to have a piece of information and need to make a pledge of anonymity to get it.

A number of reporters have paid the price, serving short stretches in jail on contempt-of-court charges for refusing to name names.

There is no easy solution to cases such as these.

As one who has never been in jail and would be less than enthusiastic at the prospect, I hesitate to make this suggestion. But perhaps jail is the price reporters occasionally have to pay as a cost of doing business.

I would contend that jail is a better alternative than asserting a right that is not granted to persons who are not employed by news organizations.

Freedom of the press is a right to be enjoyed by all. It is too precious to split into one set of privileges reserved for those of us who work in the news business and other, lesser set for modern Tom Paines working in their basements, alone and unheralded.

Kennedy is senior news editor of The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, Mass.

What happened at The Guardian could happen here

Chief_Justice_Charles_Evans_Hughes

Charles Evans Hughes

This commentary was first published at The Huffington Post.

As you have no doubt already heard, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, wrote on Monday that British security agents recently visited the newspaper’s headquarters and insisted that hard drives containing leaked documents from Edward Snowden be smashed and destroyed in their presence. The incident, Rusbridger said, took place after a “very senior government official” demanded that the materials either be returned or disposed of.

Rusbridger’s report followed the nearly nine-hour detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at London’s Heathrow Airport. Greenwald has written the bulk of The Guardian’s articles about the Snowden documents, and Miranda had been visiting filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has worked extensively with Snowden and Greenwald, in Berlin.

We are already being told that such thuggery couldn’t happen in the United States because of our constitutional protections for freedom of the press. For instance, Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review writes, “Prior restraint is the nuclear option in government relations with the press and unfortunately, the British don’t have a First Amendment.”

But in fact, there is nothing to stop the U.S. government from censoring the media with regard to revelations such as those contained in the Snowden files — nothing, that is, except longstanding tradition. And respect for that tradition is melting away, as I argued recently in this space.

The case for censorship, ironically, was made in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that severely limited the circumstances under which the government could censor. The decision, Near v. Minnesota (1931), was a great victory for the press, as the ruling held that Jay Near could not be prohibited from resuming publication of his scandal sheet, which had been shut down by state authorities (of course, he could be sued for libel after the fact).

What’s relevant here is how Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes described the limited circumstances under which the government could engage in prior restraint:

No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops. On similar grounds, the primary requirements of decency may be enforced against obscene publications. The security of the community life may be protected against incitements to acts of violence and the overthrow by force of orderly government.

The text I’ve bolded means that the government may, in fact, engage in censorship if by so doing it would prevent a breach of national security so grave that it could be likened to the examples cited by Hughes. That’s what the Nixon administration relied on in seeking to stop The New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

The Supreme Court, in allowing publication of the Pentagon Papers to resume (New York Times Co. v. United States), wrestled extensively with Near v. Minnesota, and ultimately decided that revealing the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War did not amount to the sort of immediate, serious breach of national security that Hughes envisioned.

But who knows what the court would say if the Obama administration took similar action against The Washington Post, which has published several important reports based on the Snowden documents — including last week’s Barton Gellman bombshell that the National Security Agency had violated privacy protections thousands of times?

Unlike the Pentagon Papers, the Snowden documents pertain to ongoing operations, which cuts in favor of censorship. Cutting against it, of course, is that there’s a strong public-interest case to be made in favor of publication, given the long-overdue national debate that Snowden’s revelations have ignited.

The bottom line, though, is that there is no constitutional ban that would prevent the White House from seeking to stop publication of the Snowden documents — even if U.S. officials are unlike to engage in the sort of theatrics that reportedly took place in The Guardian’s basement.

(Disclosure: I wrote a weekly online column for The Guardian from 2007 to 2011.)