Protecting the public's right to know

  • Article by: Editorial
  • Los Angeles Times
  • June 20, 2014 - 6:23 PM

Last year the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill affording some protection for reporters’ confidential sources, similar to that already provided by the majority of states. But the bill — known as the Free Flow of Information Act — has languished in the Senate since then, despite widespread and bipartisan criticism of the Obama administration’s aggressive efforts to obtain information from journalists.

In a letter to the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate, 75 media organizations have called for a floor vote on the bill. The letter was sent a few days after the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of James Risen, a New York Times reporter who has been contesting a subpoena requiring him to testify at the upcoming trial of a former CIA agent. The agent is accused of revealing classified information about a failed CIA plan to compromise Iran’s nuclear program, an operation described in a book by Risen.

It isn’t certain that Risen would have been protected from having to testify if the Free Flow of Information Act had been the law when he was subpoenaed, but it is a possibility. Reporters, like readers, wish that sources would always be willing to be identified. But sometimes — especially in cases involving public corruption — the only way to obtain information is to offer a pledge of confidentiality, then abide by it.

The Free Flow of Information Act requires that, before ordering a journalist to reveal a source, a judge must weigh the public interest in disclosure against the public interest in “gathering and disseminating the information or news at issue and maintaining the free flow of information.” Disclosure could be compelled to prevent a death or kidnapping or an act of terrorism. The privilege created by the bill is far from absolute, but it would be a significant improvement.


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