WASHINGTON - Four journalists have lost their bid to reverse a judge's order to either disclose their confidential sources or face $500 per day in fines.
The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up the reporters' cases to examine whether a generally recognized "reporters' privilege" against revealing sources should extend to a civil lawsuit brought by former nuclear-weapons-lab scientist Wen Ho Lee.
The action marks the second time in a year that the justices have let stand a judicial order seeking to force members of the media to renege on professional pledges of confidentiality made to government officials to obtain information for their news reporting.
The high-court action comes days after five media organizations agreed to pay $750,000 as part of a $1.6 million settlement of Mr. Lee's Privacy Act case. To some media analysts, the settlement sets a dangerous precedent of media companies paying to protect their reporters' pledges to keep confidential sources anonymous.
"It is going to make it much more difficult for reporters to cover stories about issues that might end up in federal court," says Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Recent developments, she adds, highlight the need for a federal reporters' shield law.
In June 2005, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time correspondent Matt Cooper. Ms. Miller spent 85 days in jail before agreeing to testify to a grand jury investigating who leaked CIA employee Valerie Plame's identity.
The action Monday at the high court arises from a civil suit filed by Lee, a former computer scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. In news reports in 1999, Lee was identified by unnamed officials as a potential target of a government investigation into Chinese efforts to obtain US nuclear secrets. No espionage charges were ever filed. Lee was charged with mishandling classified information and eventually agreed to plead guilty to one count.
But the matter didn't end there. Lee sued, claiming that officials at the Justice and Energy Departments and at the FBI violated his privacy rights by revealing private details of his life from government files to members of the press. Lee's lawyers questioned 20 officials - and called upon journalists to disclose who told them the private details they reported. The journalists refused to reveal their sources, and a federal judge found them in contempt of court.
The journalists were from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, and CNN.
A US appeals court panel upheld the ruling. While reporters enjoy a privilege against forced disclosure of their sources in some circumstances, it said, Lee's suit required their cooperation to uncover the source of the alleged wrongdoing.
Free-press advocates saw the appeals court ruling as a setback.
"This decision has far-reaching implications for the ability of journalists to inform the public about the operations of its government and misconduct in the private sector," wrote Washington lawyer Lee Levine, in a legal brief urging the high court to take up the reporters' case.