First Amendment outrage of the week

Wednesday, March 8, 2000

Periodically, identifies a “First Amendment Outrage of the Week,” recognizing the single act or gesture most offensive to the spirit of free speech, free press and free expression.

Original story
  • Journalist says he’ll go to jail rather than name sources

  • Jailing journalist doesn’t serve justice


    A judge sent Northern California journalist Tim Crews to jail for five days beginning on Feb. 26. Crews’ crime: refusing to divulge a confidential source.

    Tehama County Superior Court Judge Noel Watkins called it “obstinate and wrong-headed” for Crews, who publishes the Sacramento Valley Mirror, not to reveal who told him that a police officer had stolen a handgun from a police anti-drug squad. That former highway patrolman is now on trial on a gun-theft charge.

    California, like about 30 other states, has a “shield law” that is supposed to protect journalists from contempt-of-court punishment for refusing to divulge unpublished or confidential information. But California courts have hedged in some cases involving the shield law — sometimes upholding it, sometimes not — to the point where any journalist in that state must wonder if he or she is protected or not. Indeed, Judge Watkins’ position is that the shield law is not absolute; he has ruled that Crews must disclose what he knows because it could aid the patrolman’s defense.

    A fair trial is indisputably a crucial right for all of us. But does that mean anything goes? Is nothing else at stake? It’s misguided and short-sighted to disregard other important freedoms for the sake of fair trials. And in any case, sending a journalist to jail is not the answer.

    Consider how much news of vital public concern would be lost if everyone knew that talking to a reporter was about the same as spilling your guts to a cop or a court. Would anyone tip off a journalist any more to information about something terribly wrong in the community? Would the police officers who talked to Crews have talked to him at all in the first place? If not, we wouldn’t even know that there was a possible problem over a gun stolen within a police department.

    This is why journalists need certain legal protections for their work. It’s not because journalists are high and mighty members of society who deserve special privileges for their own comfort and convenience. It’s because allowing a whole range of legal interference with news reporting will simply curtail the free flow of news and information that we all need.

    “If courts allow journalists to be turned into agents or investigators for the prosecution or defense in criminal cases, the right of the media to collect and disseminate news to the public will be compromised,” said Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press about the Crews case. “It is crucial to the newsgathering function that journalists remain, and that they be perceived to be, independent.”

    Will justice be done? Perhaps it will if the court subpoenas all of the officers who might reasonably have been in a position to know what was going on with that handgun. And if it lets Tim Crews out of jail.

    And still outraged by …

    • Cops disassemble right to protest
      Applying strange reasoning to when First Amendment ‘applies,’ Denver police order peaceful protesters to vacate public forum.
    • City’s limit on church attendance out of line
      Portland, Ore., official tries to solve neighborhood-nuisance problem by stripping worshippers of basic rights.
    • School’s art lesson doesn’t make grade
      For crime of displaying disturbing art, Sarah Boman is suspended and told she needs mental exam.
    • Breaking down his door shattered his First Amendment rights
      Town gadflies can be exasperating, maybe libelous — but that doesn’t mean they should be hauled off their live cable-TV shows and arrested, as happened in Winchester, Tenn.
    • Turning libel law upside down
      New Jersey appeals court says newspaper must prove that it shouldn’t have to face lawsuit.
    • School reads safety threat in student’s stanzas
      James LaVine tried to understand school violence by exploring it in a poem, but his school saw his effort as a security risk.
    • Misjudgment cuts off public disclosure, imperils open access
      Security was the reason Judge William J. Zloch gave this week when he cut off public access to the financial disclosure records of federal judges nationwide. But the real security threat here is to press freedom, judicial accountability and open government.
    • Muscling in on student press freedom
      For 30 years Freeport (N.Y.) High School’s newspaper, Flashings, published school news freely, without meddling by school officials.
    • They turned kid’s scary story into a crime scene
      In adult minds, 13-year-old Christopher Beamon deserved six days in jail for what he wrote in his class assignment.

    More outrage