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Miss. asks high court to shield reporters’ sources

Mississippi is among 34 states urging the U.S. Supreme Court torecognize a reporter’s right to keep sources confidential.

Justices have agreed to hear a case involving the leak of anundercover CIA officer’s identity. A bipartisan group of attorneysgeneral is assembling to file a friend-of-the-court brief in thecase, which involves contempt of court orders against New YorkTimes reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine’s Matt Cooper.

The journalists face 18 months in jail for refusing to testifybefore a grand jury as part of an investigation into who divulgedthe name of CIA officer Valerie Plame.

A federal judge held the reporters in contempt last fall, and anappeals court rejected their argument that the First Amendmentshielded them from revealing their sources.

The case has much broader implications than Miller and Cooper,however, because it challenges a journalist’s ability to protectconfidential sources. The friend-of-the-court brief is an attemptby the state attorneys general to have the Supreme Court defineconfidential sources for reporters and broaden the lengths they cango to protect those sources without violating the law.

“We did sign onto that. I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t wantto sign onto it,” said Jacob Ray, special assistant attorneygeneral.

Ray said it was essential that journalists be able to protecttheir confidential sources in order to expose corruption ingovernment and other areas in which people with the necessaryknowledge might be afraid to speak out.

“It allows for more communication between reporters andgovernment employees or anyone else to get information that mightnot otherwise ever be released or exposed,” Ray said.

His cited the recent revelation of former FBI official W. MarkFelt as Deep Throat as an example of the need for confidentialsources.

Information received from Felt confidentially allowed WashingtonPost reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to expose Watergate,which led to the resignations of President Richard Nixon andpresidential aides H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman. Aide JohnDean was also fired, and seven men, including two former WhiteHouse aides, were convicted of conspiracy, burglary andwiretapping.

“That’s a prime example of sunshine being allowed into an areathat would otherwise remain dark,” Ray said, adding that many otherexamples exist.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, one of the organizers ofthe drive, said it appears odd on the surface that attorneygenerals would be protecting confidentiality of reporters’ sources,but he said a deeper look is needed.

“Everybody’s first reaction was, ‘Wait a minute. We’re chief lawenforcement officers in our states. Why are we going to supportsomething that makes our job harder?'” Shurtleff told TheAssociated Press. “But we’ve always recognized the importance ofconstitutional protections. Overall, society is better off with anopen press and an informed public.

“In addition,” he said, “it’s important everyone knows what therules are. Reporters in fairness need to know they’re going to beprotected. That argument has turned a lot of AGs around.”

The Supreme Court is concerned about how such a privilege asinviolate confidential sources could be abused by reporters, whocould conceivably write a fictional story with the alleged factsattributed to confidential sources.

The earliest the court could take up the case is this fall.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.