New York Times reporter Judith Miller was sentenced for contempt today for refusing to reveal who told her that Valerie Plame was a CIA operative. Many states have shield laws that allow journalists to protect the identity of their sources, but there’s no federal law.
Whenever such laws are discussed, one of the main questions is how to define a journalist. In this day of bloggers, isn’t everyone at least potentially a journalist? A law that allowed journalists to protect their sources might allow anyone to claim to be a journalist and refuse to disclose a conversation to a grand jury or a court.
This seemed like a reasonable objection (or at least a complication) to me, until it occurred to me to ask “So what?”
Why not have a universal shield law?
As a practical matter, how bad would it really be if nobody could be compelled to disclose a private conversation? How often are there criminal cases where (1) a witness has to disclose what someone else said, (2) it was a private conversation, (3) it’s admissible, (4) the witness doesn’t want to testify, (5) but does so anyway (instead of refusing or lying), (6) out of concern for a contempt charge (rather than as part of a deal on another charge). My guess is that not many cases would collapse because of an inability to compel testimony in this one special case.
Heck, how often would anyone even know that the conversation took place? This seems like the sort of thing that could only come up in weird circumstances, such as the national security issues present in the Plame case, or when a journalist publishes information from the conversation.
I’ve got to find out more about this. I think I may be on to something.