News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion
SUNDAY, JULY 10, 2005


Free speech requires confidential sources

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was prescient when, in 1972, he dissented from a ruling that last week sent a New York Times reporter to jail.

"After today's decision," wrote the jurist, "the potential informant can never be sure that his identity or off-the-record communications will not subsequently be revealed through the compelled testimony of a newsman."

Judith Miller last week became a victim of a judge and prosecutor who value obedience over the free exchange of ideas and legalism over a healthy democracy.

This nation's founding fathers recognized the importance of protecting not just what is written, but the newsgathering process itself.

"A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it," wrote James Madison, "is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both."

Ms. Miller deserves the respect and thanks of the U.S. public. She was willing to endure personal sacrifice to protect the public's right to free speech.

The district judge who ordered her jailed demonstrated no such concern. In a triumph of slippery-slope logic, he concluded grand-jury subpoenas trump a free press every time.

"If she were given a pass today, then the next person could say as a matter of principle, 'I will not obey the law because of the abortion issue,' or the election of a president or whatever," said the trial judge. "They could claim the moral high ground, and then we could descend into anarchy."

Anarchy? The court's argument neglects the fundamental role a free press has in our democratic republic. Permitting reporters to fulfill that role is not a free pass to lawlessness. Rather, it is a recognition that, in a democracy, suppressing information is usually a bad idea.

We hope the U.S. Supreme Court revisits the 1972 decision. We hope it does so quickly so Ms. Miller's individual sacrifice for public freedom is no greater than necessary.

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