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A terrible precedent



Published: Fri, July 8, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



San Jose Mercury News: A federal judge sent New York Times reporter Judith Miller to jail Wednesday for protecting a source for a story she never wrote.

Her four-month sentence, to coerce her to testify, shows excessive prosecutorial zeal. It also underscores the need for a federal shield law immunizing journalists from being forced to break confidences.

Whether it's revealing the crimes of a president, shining a light on environmental dangers or giving tips on city officials who take advantage of their office, reporters sometimes need to use confidential sources to write stories for the public good. The sources, in turn, need to trust that their identities won't be disclosed; otherwise, they won't come forward with information.

In refusing to testify about conversations she had with federal officials, Miller is standing on principle. She's also acting on behalf of the public.

Protection overdue

A majority of the states and the District of Columbia have some form of a shield law. One covering the federal government is long due. Congress should pass it to prevent other federal judges from dispatching reporters to time behind bars.

We say this acknowledging that Miller's prosecution doesn't provide the best case for a shield law. A special prosecutor wants to know which Bush administration officials gave the identity of an intelligence agent to conservative columnist Robert Novak. Revealing the identity of an intelligence agent can be a federal crime; it can put lives and the nation's security at risk. It's different from exposing government misconduct or revealing information that officials want to keep secret. Sources with the courage to come forward in these instances need the protection of a shield law.

It's a mystery why Miller has been dragged into prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's two-year investigation. Novak's column outed Valerie Plame; Miller, who apparently spoke with some of the same officials, chose not to write a story.

It's a terrible precedent to jail a journalist who never published anything related to the subject of an investigation. Only a shield law can stop this from happening again.




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