The U.S. Supreme Court turned away an appeal from a New York Times reporter who was ordered to testify at the criminal trial of a former CIA official accused of leaking classified information.
Leaving intact a federal appeals court decision, the justices today refused to hear James Risen’s contention that a reporter’s privilege shields journalists from having to reveal the identities of confidential sources at criminal trials.
The rebuff is a blow to media organizations, which have long sought greater protections for journalists under federal law. The New York Times Co. (NYT) and Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, were among the media companies that urged the high court to take up Risen’s appeal.
The Supreme Court hasn’t considered since 1972 whether reporters have a right not to identify their sources. That year a splintered court ruled against a journalist without making clear whether a reporter’s privilege exists under federal law in the first place.
In a 2-1 ruling against Risen, a federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, said reporters can’t claim a privilege under either the Constitution or what is known as federal common law. The majority also said the government’s need for Risen’s testimony in its prosecution of Jeffrey Sterling was powerful enough to overcome a privilege, even if it existed.
Sterling is charged with leaking information to Risen in violation of the Espionage Act. The information was made public in Risen’s book “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” which revealed a covert operation involving an attempt to supply Iranian officials with flawed nuclear weapons plans.
According to the Washington Post, Attorney General Eric Holder met with a group of journalists last week about rules concerning subpoenas and said, “As long as I’m attorney general, no reporter will go to jail for doing his job.”
Today, Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said in an e-mailed statement, “We are considering the next steps in this case.”
The case is Risen v. United States, 13-1009.
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