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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Here's Why Conservatives Should Support Judith Miller and a Federal Shield Law for Journalists

Judith Miller, The New York Times reporter who spent 86 days in jail for refusing to divulge sources to Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in the Plamegate scandal, spoke to the Society of Professional Journalists' national convention yesterday in Las Vegas.

Miller said she went to jail not merely to protect a single source - Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff - but to prevent Fitzgerald from forcing her to testify about her other sources in the intelligence community.

The issue was not protection of Libby but that she "could not risk a fishing expedition into all my intelligence sources." She agreed to testify before Fitzgerald's grand jury when he agreed to limit questioning to Libby.

Miller said if government can go rummaging around a reporter's notes and sources, then nobody with knowledge of official corruption will ever come forward to talk to reporters. "It is the freedom of people to talk to the press without getting in trouble, it is that right that's under assault today."

She received a standing ovation from about half of the assembled journalists, according to Breitbart. Can we assume then the half who remained seated have no objection to bureaucrats going through their files and notebooks?

That is precisely why conservatives and libertarians who support limited government should be Miller's most vocal supporters. There is no accountability of government without an independent media able to assure confidentiality to sources within government with knowledge of wrong-doing.

Can such a privilege be abused? Of course, just as the similar shield laws protecting lawyers, doctors and counselors such as priests and ministers can be abused. At the same time, there is no reason to make a journalist shield law any more absolute than is the case with other professions.

Reasonable protection of confidentiality of journalists' sources is no more the equivalent of granting special privileges to reporters that "put them above the law" than do shield laws for lawyers or doctors.

But the principle of limiting government and assuring its accountability requires preserving an independent media to the greatest degree possible. Conservatives and libertarians ought to be praising and defending Miller, not confusing her plight with the abuses of a liberal media that over the years have so poisoned the public's perception of journalism.

UPDATE: 6:00 p.m.

Miller testified today before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the shield law proposals and pointed to contrast between the near unanimity at the state level where reporters enjoy a nearly abolute or limited privilege and the federal level where no such privilege exists:

"In fact, as this panel knows, all but one state - Wyoming - have enacted shield laws or assured such protection through court rulings. But such protection of the public's right to know does not exist at the Federal level because of a more than 30-year old Supreme Court ruling that has spread confusion in Federal courts and news bureaus throughout the land.
"Because of that judicial chaos, reporters who ought to be able to rely on a state's law, may not be able to do so. Sometimes, through chance, a case may end up in a Federal rather than a state court. Not only does this lead to a lack of legal predictability and no real basis on which to govern one’s behavior, it is also fundamentally unfair.
"That is yet another reason why a Federal Shield Law is so essential. The Federal government should finally catch up with the will of the states, all but one of which now provide absolute or qualified protection for reporters and their sources. Most of these laws have been adopted in the 30 years since the Supreme Court's decision."

Go here for the complete text of Miller's testimony.