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Publication date: Aug. 25, 2004

SEJ JOINS 26 JOURNO GROUPS TO SUPPORT REPORTERS' PRIVILEGE; YOU CAN SIGN ON, TOO

The Society of Environmental Journalists joined at least 26 other national journalism groups on August 24, 2004, in signing a statement of support for journalists found in contempt of court for protecting confidential sources.

Hundreds of individual journalists have also signed the statement, which is expected to run soon as a full-page ad in national newspapers. Journalists can sign up online quickly just by visiting a page on the Web site of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Signers argue that journalists can only get information from whistleblowers and other important sources if they can believably promise a source that his or her identity will not be disclosed. Some 31 states and the District of Columbia have "shield" laws protecting the reporter's privilege of confidentiality - and some of those laws are over a century old. The federal government, however, has no such law. In July 2001, a federal court sent author Vanessa Leggett to jail for 168 days because she refused to turn over the identities of sources for a book about a Houston murder she was working on.

At last count there were subpoenas or contempt orders against 11 different U.S. reporters in three different cases (the Valerie Plame, Wen Ho Lee, and Buddy Cianci cases) for resisting efforts by the judicial system to force them to disclose confidential sources. The number is unprecedented, and has caused many journalists grave concern about their ability to get information from sources.

Judicial efforts to compel testimony affect environmental journalists as much as any other specialty. For example, Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette was forced in 1998 to testify about a 1996 chemical leak and fire he had covered. Ward had been subpoenaed by plaintiffs in a class action suit seeking damages for injuries they claimed resulted from a January 1996 incident at the Institute, West Virginia, pesticide plant of Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co., involving more than 9,100 pounds of toluene. Ward currently chairs SEJ's First Amendment Task Force.

Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper finally bowed to a judge's order Aug. 23 and testified in the Valerie Plame case after he was sentenced to jail time; he was then cleared of contempt. "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert agreed to testify, saying afterward he had not disclosed any confidential sources. Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler also agreed to testify after "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, released him from promises of confidentiality (as he had done with Cooper also).

Virtually all of the national journalism organizations, under the umbrella of the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, have endorsed a "Statement of Support" intended to be run as a full-page ad in national newspapers. In this case, they are also asking for the signatures of INDIVIDUAL JOURNALISTS to be run with the ad.

SEJ has decided to sign on as an organization, along with 26 other groups so far, including the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Newspaper Association of America, the Newspaper Guild, and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

LIST OF SUPPORTING ORGANIZATIONS

American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors
American Federation of Television & Radio Artists
American Society of Journalists and Authors
American Society of Magazine Editors
American Society of Newspaper Editors
Asian American Journalists Association
Associated Press Managing Editors
Association of Health Care Journalists
Coalition of Journalists for Open Government
Criminal Justice Journalists
Education Writers Association
Investigative Reporters and Editors
Journalism and Women Symposium
Magazine Publishers of America
National Association of Black Journalists
National Association of Science Writers
National Conference of Editorial Writers
National Press Club
National Press Photographers
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
Newspaper Association of America
The Newspaper Guild
Radio-Television News Directors Association
Religion Newswriters Association
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Society of Environmental Journalists
Society of Professional Journalists
University of Missouri Freedom of Information Center


The full text of the statement endorsed by the groups follows:

A Statement In Support of Journalists Found in Contempt of Court

For well over a century, reporters have recognized an ethical duty to protect their confidential sources. If journalists could not and did not honor this guarantee, significant sources who fear reprisal will be afraid to reveal what they know; valuable information about government conduct will not reach the public.

Reporters recognize that this duty must be defended uniformly. It should not be compromised whenever questions are raised about possible sources, or it will be lost in all situations.

We support the reporters in current federal court proceedings who are refusing to testify about their confidential sources and now face stiff fines, even jail. We commend these reporters for standing firm and standing up for First Amendment principles.


Last revised January 22, 2013

The Society of Environmental Journalists
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