This article on CNN.com intrigued me. For those too lazy to click on the link, the story is about a nuclear scientist who was being charged with espionage by the Energy and/or Justice Departments. Information about this suspicion was leaked to the press, and the scientist lost his job in Los Alamos and was actually held in solitary confinement for nine months. Later, he sued the government as well as several media for leaking and disseminating the charges of espionage. He charged that this violated his privacy rights.
It would be interesting to go through law school to better understand cases like this, though I’m sure law school comprises more than riveting & nuanced case discussions. There may be a fair amount of reading too. However, in my limited understanding of the legal system, I know that the court presumes innocence until the defendant is proven guilty.
There also seems to be a general understanding of professional-client privilege. In other words, information doctors gain from professional encounters with patients is protected; the same is true for lawyers and clients. This argument could be extended in the practical sense to journalists and anonymous sources.
Now in this case, the results of the leak appear to have been devastating to this scientist’s career. Was the leak appropriate? This makes me wonder what does constitute an appropriate leak. If the informant spoke to the reporter on the condition of anonymity, then there may be professional repercussions if it were known that he shared confidential information to the press. I guess we’ve seen recently in the CIA that having access to information doesn’t give a person the right to decide it should be de-classified.
Back to our story. The scientist sued. It seems that the court requested the names of the informant(s) from the journalists, who in turn refused on the grounds of protecting the privilege between a journalist and an informant. The journalists were then held in contempt of the court, and the media & government agencies settled with the scientist out of court.
The most interesting thing is that the media representatitves seemed to take the moral high ground. The settlement was not meant to be a tacit admission of guilt. Rather, they settled to avoid jail time for the journalists and protect the confidentiality of their sources.
“We were reluctant to contribute anything to this settlement, but we sought relief in the courts and found none,” the companies said. “Given the rulings of the federal courts in Washington and the absence of a federal shield law, we decided this was the best course to protect our sources and to protect our journalists.”
And another quotation, this time from Lucy Dalglish, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, who believed the settlement to be “unusual and perhaps unprecedented.” (A rather measured remark from a person who makes her living working for freedom of the press.) She goes on to say,
“I’m certainly not happy about this, but I’m not sure I could have dreamed up a better result,” Dalglish said. “On the positive side, it appears that this result will allow these reporters to continue to protect their sources.”
The settlement underscores the need for a federal law that would shield reporters from having to disclose their sources, she said.
I think what we have here is a discrepancy between presumed rights of journalists and the written law. Dalglish argues that because of these rights (perhaps derived from the First Amendment), the “federal shield law” is needed. But in my simple way of reading the article, I wonder if a counter argument could be made. Because there is no such shield law, journalists don’t have the right to protect confidential sources when ordered by the court to reveal them.
In the medical profession, of which I’ve learned a little, there are exceptions for doctor-patient privacy. If a patient presents a serious danger to himself or others, appropriate people or agencies should be contacted. CPS must be called with the suspicion of child abuse. And it’s required to inform the Health Department in the case of certain infectious disease. All of these provisions are in the written law.
So, why is it that some journalists believe they enjoy an unassailable right to protect confidential sources which may have infringed on other’s privacy rights, especially when this right is not spelled out in the law and the courts have ordered the sources be made known? With all respect to the importance of a free press, I welcome comments on this subject.
*My original title to the post was “Individual versus Journalists’ Privacy Rights,” but I changed it for fear of boring away potential readers. Sorry for being misleading.