CHICAGO — The American Bar Association gave its backing this week to journalists facing jail time, voting to endorse federal protection for those refusing to reveal their confidential sources to prosecutors.
The nation's largest lawyers' group overwhelmingly approved the measure Aug. 9 on a voice vote at its annual meeting. The move, which follows the high-profile jailing of one reporter and threats against others, authorizes the 400,000-member ABA to lobby Congress, where "shield law" proposals are pending.
"Our action today acknowledges the important role of journalists and the media to providing the public with significant information to ensure an informed democracy, and reporters' need to be able to protect sources in order to get that information," said Michael S. Greco of Boston, ABA's president.
"It also recognizes reasonable standards for compelling journalists to name sources or disclose information gleaned in gathering news," he said.
The ABA rejected supporting a reporter shield law 30 years ago, but lawyers reconsidered the proposal after New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed a month ago for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating the leak of the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Earlier this summer, a federal appeals court also upheld civil contempt findings against four journalists, including an Associated Press reporter, whose confidential sources pointed to scientist Wen Ho Lee as an espionage suspect.
Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have shield laws protecting reporters from having to identify their confidential sources, but there is no federal protection. Lawyers involved in the ABA proposal have said some kind of national law is needed to encourage federal government whistleblowers to come forward.