WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from news
organizations fighting to protect confidential sources, declining to consider
the case of four reporters in legal trouble over their stories about former
nuclear weapons scientist Wen Ho Lee.
The Court's action, released today, was made without comment. Late last week,
Lee, a Taiwanese-American, settled his privacy lawsuit, and will receive $1.6
million from the government and five news organizations.
Journalists had been in civil contempt of court for refusing to disclose who
leaked them information about an espionage investigation of Lee, a nuclear
weapons scientist fired from his job at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New
Lee sued the government for violating his rights under the Privacy Act.
The prospect of Supreme Court inaction factored into the agreement by five news organizations, including the Associated Press, to make the payment to Lee.
"They played out the legal possibilities and they looked pretty bleak. Maybe discretion was the better part of valor," said University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias.
Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said she disagreed with the news companies' decision to pay Lee, particularly when the government is pressing reporters to reveal sources in several cases involving disclosure of classified information.
"It does not seem to me this is a really good time for news organizations to be suggesting that they are tacitly at fault when they receive leaked classified information, and the settlement certainly conveys that message," Kirtley said.
Like other press advocates, Kirtley said the best way to protect journalists would be the passage of a federal journalist shield law. Legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate, but prospects for passage are uncertain.
The four reporters are H. Josef Hebert of the Associated Press, James Risen
of The New York Times, Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times and
Pierre Thomas, formerly of CNN and now working for ABC News.
Justices could have dismissed the appeals on the basis of the out-of-court
settlement. Instead, they denied review of the appeals, which had been filed on
behalf of the reporters during the legal wrangling with Lee.
Betsy Miller, one of Lee's lawyers, called the court decision a surprise that "is an important, final vindication for Dr. Lee, as it resolves without any doubt that the court did not feel the reporters' appeals merited further review."
The cases are Drogin v. Lee, 05-969, and Thomas v. Lee,
Justice Stephen Breyer did not participate.