Monday, December 13, 2004

SAFIRE: SUPPORT A FEDERAL SHIELD LAW

Regardless of what you think of William Safire's politics, there can be no doubt, at the end of his legendary career, that he is a true journalist. He gets it.

...Isn't every citizen obliged to give sworn testimony to help the government enforce the law?

The answer is no. The government may not compel a man to testify against his wife, nor doctor against patient, nor priest against penitent, nor lawyer against client. The law has extended this "privilege" to psychologists and social workers, on the theory that society is ill served by erosion of trust within relationships dependent on such trust.

Certainly the public interest in the robust and uninhibited flow of information should continue to protect confidential relations between source and journalist (as more than 30 states now do through "shield" laws).

Here's the rub: No privilege is absolute. Constitutional rights sometimes conflict. Extreme example: Everybody - spouses, doctors, lawyers, clergy, journalists, bartenders - must break any confidence to prevent a murder. We are expected to use common sense in balancing our right to remain silent with our obligation to bear witness.

That good sense is being swept away today by leak-happy prosecutors and activist judges. This trend toward the jailing of journalists for protecting the free flow of news is an abuse-of-power abomination. If higher courts can't control the plumbing fashionable below, it's up to Congress to enact a federal shield law.

Liberals may now be fearful of opposing mindless media hatred, but why are principled conservatives not aroused by imperial judges? The founders ensured freedom of the Fourth Estate as a check against the powers of all three branches of central government. Most states are doing their part. Pass that federal shield law before a judiciary on steroids throws Strike 3. (emphasis added.)

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