Court Rules Journalists Must Disclose Sources, Missing the Point Of Journalism

Yesterday, the Fourth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that James Risen, a New York Times journalist who, in a book he wrote about the CIA, disclosed the agency’s efforts to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program at the end of the Clinton administration, is legally compelled to reveal his source. Chief Judge William Byrd Traxler Jr. stated in his opinion: “Clearly, Risen’s direct, firsthand account of the criminal conduct indicted by the grand jury cannot be obtained by alternative means, as Risen is without dispute the only witness who can offer this critical testimony.”

Although Mr. Risen is indeed the only man who has the knowledge necessary to disclose his source, he should not be legally obligated to do so. The press is, or at least ought to be, one of the most important checks on our government, and one of the most visible components of democracy. So if the government were to force Mr. Risen to compromise his integrity as a journalist, or to establish a precedent that would hinder the press’ ability to gather information, it would be an absolute affront to the First Amendment and our democratic system.

The judicial vote that essentially set the stage for such a circumstance was affirmed by a 2-1 margin. Judge Roger Gregory, the member who voted against the majority, warned that “the majority exalts the interests of the government while unduly trampling those of the press, and in doing so, severely impinges on the press and the free flow of information in our society.”

And he is absolutely right.

The Fourth Circuit’s decision will indubitably inhibit journalists’ ability to gather and report information. Potential sources will be discouraged from sharing information, including that which the American people have the right to know, for fear of indictment. Moreover, journalists will be less inclined to print information for fear of eventually being forced to reveal — and compromise — their sources, and thus their own journalistic integrity.

Just as priests are not legally obligated to disclose information they gain when performing the sacrament of confession, a journalist should not be obligated to disclose the source of his or her information. Government transparency is essential to democracy — it is a sacred tradition that has indeed been compromised in the past, but that still endures and ought not be infringed by this court ruling.

Admittedly, this decision only applies to the districts under the Fourth Circuit’s jurisdiction. These districts include, however, the nation’s capital and the heart of its national security operations: the CIA, FBI, and the Pentagon. This case is subsequently urgently relevant to the entire nation and the journalists who report on the federal government.

Mr. Risen has not rested his case and will likely appeal to the Supreme Court, which has the capacity to nullify the Fourth Circuit’s majority opinion. A Supreme Court decision on such a matter would carry national ramifications and markedly define the press’ ability to uphold its responsibility in American society, a responsibility that the government and the courts should not inhibit.