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Communication & Media

News & Events

Professor urges shield law

09/20/2005

By Scott Gargan, Staff Writer

Journalism professor and author Robert Miraldi spoke about the increased threat to journalists using anonymous sources by Federal prosecutors on Monday in his lecture ''Reporters, Sources and Jail.''

''I'm concerned about the threat to journalists ability to use anonymous sources and not end up in jail,'' the SUNY New Paltz professor said, referring to New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was sentenced to prison for a maximum 18 months this July by a Federal judge for refusing to reveal the identity of a confidential source.

According to Miraldi, collecting delicate information may, at times, require a reporter to grant his or her source confidentiality. But many journalists are now being forced by Federal prosecutors to give up names of these sources or risk being held in contempt.

Miraldi blamed the ''tone set by the Bush administration'' for the increase in these ''attacks.''

''I think Bush does not like the press and wants to punish the press,'' Miraldi said, addressing the students and faculty that crowded the Honors Center.

Although there are ''shield laws'' in 31 states, which give varying degrees of protection to journalists in withholding the identity of confidential sources, there is no Federal shield law.

''Judith does not have to be in jail,'' Miraldi said, explaining that a Federal shield law should be enacted.

According to federal law, citizens, with the exception of clergy, police, spouses and some doctors can be forced to testify at any time in front of a grand jury.

But, Miraldi explained, ''Journalists are not normal citizens' reporters need protection so that the public can be insured information.''

This debate, Miraldi said, represents a ''clash of public needs.''

''Law enforcement needs information to prosecute a crime [but] there is the legitimate need of the press to collect information and sometimes promise to conceal the identity of the source to get sensitive information,'' he said.

Miraldi connected Miller's case with a story from his time as a general assignment reporter for the Staten Island Advance. He was summoned by a New York City district attorney to provide the identity of certain members of the city's tow truck driver's organization who organized a protest in which numerous cars were dropped in strategic areas of the city's road system.

Incidentally, one of the cars blockingtraffic caused an accident in which two people were killed. Prosecutors wanted to charge the protest organizers with conspiracy to commit manslaughter.

''The DA said to me, 'If you don't talk, we send you to jail' and my editor said, ''you're on your own, kid,'' Miraldi said, receiving laughter from the audience.

Although he was not sent to prison, Miraldi explained Federal prosecutors are still indicting many reporters.

''And unless the press screams and explains itself and the public gets angry ,the situation will get worse before it gets better,'' he said, offering the students a 'lead paragraph' for their potential stories.

Miraldi went on to discuss Branzberg v Hayes, a landmark United States Supreme Court decision in 1972 that invalidated the use of the First Amendment as a defense for journalists who are summoned to testify before a grand jury.

Paul Branzburg, a reporter for the Louisville Courier-Times, witnessed two men making hashish and after having written a story about the incident, was ordered by a Federal Court to give up the names of the drug makers. Branzburg refused to cooperate and the court ruled against him 5-4.

One of the court's judges issued a sympathetic statement, writing that concealing the source's identity would not jeopardize the bulk of journalists and that the press should, in fact, receive certain privileges.

Despite this, Miraldi said the decision ''shot the press down.''

''The court didn't want to define who should get the priveleges,'' Miraldi said.

Journalism professor Howard Good disagreed with some of Miraldi's arguments.

''I'm troubled by journalists, or anyone else, setting themselves up as a privileged class, with rights and privileges and exemptions not granted to the rest of us,'' Good said, referring to the prospect of having a federal shield law. ''The press can be a threat to freedom and justice just as much as the government can.''

John Darnton, Pulitzer Prize winner, this semester's James H. Ottaway professor and former New York Times editor enjoyed the lecture and agreed with Miraldi.

''I thought he laid out the problem cogently and passionately,'' Darnton said. ''And yes, I agree with him on the need for a shield law and for the protection of confidentiality of sources' I believe [journalist's] profession sets them apart.''