Boy, I'll tell you, there is something really insidious going on here.
A woman named Toni Locy is being held in contempt of court because she won't reveal her sources from a story she wrote in USA Today over six years ago.
I have just finished shooting a film called Nothing but the Truth which deals with this very topic. Kate Beckinsale plays a reporter who goes to jail protecting the identity of a confidential source who reveals to her the name of a CIA agent. The prosecutor in the film cites national security as a reason to coerce Kate's character into submission. It becomes the film's central conflict.
In her article, Locy revealed that Stephen Hatfill was a prime suspect in the government investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks. Hatfill has sued the government for destroying his reputation. U.S. district court judge Reggie Walton, the judge in the case, is ordering Locy to reveal to him and Hatfill's attorneys who it was that gave her her information.
Judge Walton has found an unusual way to enforce the contempt citation. He wants to fine Ms. Locy on a daily basis until she talks. Its starting at $500 a day but will eventually grow to $5K a day. What's really interesting is that the judge is considering (at Hatfill's request) not allowing USA Today or Gannett to pay the fines. This is even more damaging than being sent to jail. After all, a few days out of the joint and you can go back to life as usual. The same can not be said for recovering from bankruptcy. If all this stands, Locy will be financially wiped out for having done her job and done it well.
Hatfill certainly deserves remedy for the damage done to him. But the First Amendment can not be sacrificed for his benefit... and sacrificed it will be...
Simply stated, sometimes journalists can only get their information from informants who must remain anonymous in order to protect their careers and sometimes even their lives:
Watergate: Confidential sources.
The Pentagon Papers: Confidential sources.
Enron: Confidential sources.
The examples of anonymous sources enlightening society, holding the government or corporations accountable for their behavior, goes on an on.
True, sometimes, anonymous sources, when merely stating opinions or running a smear campaign, are certainly cowards. I have no respect for those who spoke under the veil of secrecy to the New York Times in last week's attack on John McCain. A prominent first amendment attorney told me he feared the proposed Federal Shield law now before the Senate may well be shut down because of Republican anger at the New York Times article.
However, when reporters are in the business of obtaining hard facts that service the free flow of information, journalists should have a right to obtain that information without fear of personal ruin or incarceration.
The ability of the press to print their stories without the government trying to get them to betray their sources is as essential to a free press as the ink it is printed with. Otherwise, who will hold accountable those who hold power over us? For what is the nature of a government without accountability? We should all shudder at the thought.
And so should Judge Walton.