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Barbara Lombardo of Saratoga Springs, NY, is a journalism adjunct at University at Albany and retired executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Protecting sources protects democracy

The press is the only profes¬sion specifically mentioned in the Constitution.
The First Amendment reads: “Con¬gress shall make no law respect¬ing an establish¬ment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
But the First Amendment is not about protecting the press as a profession or a business.
It’s about protecting democra¬cy.
A serious threat to that free¬dom is looming on a federal level. The partial cure would be a feder¬al shield law — endorsed by all the presidential candidates, but not the current president — that would protect journalists from absurd punishments for refusing to reveal confidential sources. Such laws already exist in one form or another in almost every state.
The call for a federal shield law is revving up because a federal judge has ordered a former reporter named Toni Locy to reveal her sources or pay a fine that, in two weeks’ time, would escalate to $5,000 a day. And he ordered that every cent must come out of her own pocket, with no reimbursement from an employer, family, supporters, no one.
The fine is on hold while a fed¬eral appeals court considers what to do about it.
All of this revolves around a civil lawsuit against the Justice Department by a man named by the federal government as a “person of interest” in the fatal Anthrax attacks that jarred the nation after 9/11. The man claims that Justice Department and FBI leaks ruined his reputation. The Justice Department wants to know who gave Locy the man’s name.
The case is troubling for sever¬al reasons:
ä Prior to Locy’s article, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft on national TV named the man as a “person of interest” in the Anthrax investigation.
ä The judge refused to accept that five years after writing her story she honestly couldn’t remember which of her many sources said what.
ä The sources’ identities are irrelevant to the lawsuit that prompted this nightmare.
ä The chilling effect on news gathering, should a judge be allowed to coerce a reporter by issuing a decree tantamount to personal financial devastation.
Locy’s story for USA Today focused on the weakness of the government’s case against the man two years into its investiga¬tion.
If anyone has some explaining to do, it’s the federal government, which has still neither charged nor cleared this man.
Beverley Lumpkin summed up the issue well in her blog on, the Project on Govern¬ment Oversight: “This is really a subject of central importance to all who care about a thriving democracy.”
The appeals court should reject the absurd and excessive ruling of the federal judge. And the next president, Republican or Democ¬rat, should press for a federal shield law to protect reporters and their confidential sources.

Barbara Lombardo is manag¬ing editor of The Saratogian. Her column is published Saturdays in the Life section and under the Fresh Ink blog at www.sarato¬ E-mail her at blombar¬


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