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Speaker opposes shield law, sparks disagreement with journalists

By Billy O'Keefe

GERGANA BOBEVA / The Working Press
A law professor who opposes a federal shield law for journalists argued Friday with dozens of reporters who are anxious for such protection.
Randall Eliason, a professor at American University, questioned the need for a confidentiality protection and said it wouldn’t make a difference even if it existed. Reporters can’t guarantee absolute confidentiality to sources and a law would not change that, he said.

Legal Troubles
1. Jim Taricani of NBC affiliate WJAR-TV in Providence, R.I., was sentenced in 2004 to six months of home confinement and was released by the same judge after four months. Taricani had refused to reveal who provided him with a videotape showing a city official receive a bribe.
2. Freelance writer and author Vanessa Leggett spent 168 days in Federal Detention Center in Houston for refusing to provide the federal grand jury with her research materials. Leggett was released when the grand jury completed its term in January 2002.
3. Matthew Cooper, Time magazine correspondent, avoided jail because he was able to obtain a last-minute consent to reveal his source in the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation.
4. Judith Miller of The New York Times chose to go to jail when refusing to reveal her source in the Plame case. She spent 85 days in jail in 2005.
5. Josh Wolf, video blogger and freelance journalist, was jailed in 2006 for keeping from the federal grand jury videotapes of 2005 anarchist protests in San Francisco. Wolf spent a record 226 days behind bars.

“If the shield law did what its proponents say it’ll do, then I’d favor it,” Eliason said. “The reason I don’t favor it is because I am convinced it won’t do what everybody says it’ll do.”
Journalists in the room disagreed with Eliason.
Jim Taricani, a reporter from WJAR-TV in Providence, R.I., spent four months on house arrest after a judge found him in criminal contempt of court. Taricani had refused to say who gave him a videotape showing a city official taking a bribe. He said sometimes reporters need legal protection in order to do their duty to protect the public interest.
“The bottom line for all this is that journalists should not face punishment for doing our job,” Taricani said. “ We just simply shouldn’t.”
Eliason responded by saying that reporters are not punished for doing their jobs, but for refusing to testify without a legal excuse. He said the wrongdoing by the reporter starts when he or she promises absolute confidentiality.
“Reporters will stop going to jail tomorrow with or without a shield law,” Eliason said. “All they need to do is start obeying the law.”
Eve Burton, general counsel for the Hearst Corp., said the situation has become worse in recent years as journalists have lost the respect of all three branches of government.
“That is a crisis for the public that wants to learn what the government is doing,” Burton said, adding that the situation makes it harder for journalists to do their watchdog role. The audience applauded.
Burton also said confidential sources break the law by providing information to journalists. She said the question should not be whether the source is “clean” but what the information reveals and how important it is to the public interest.
Eliason also compared journalists to doctors, lawyers and spouses, who all have confidentiality privileges. With all other professions, people obey judges when they are ordered to testify in court, Eliason said.
“The only profession that I know of to seem to believe that their professional ethics allow them to disobey the law is journalism,” he said. “I don’t understand that.”
Bruce Sanford, partner at the Baker Hostetler law firm in Washington, said there have been cases in which judges have forced these other professionals to testify. But he said they are discussed less and that fewer people know about them.
Legislation to create a federal shield law is pending in Congress.