Symposium explores reporters’ rights

From the Lewiston Tribune

By William L. Spence
of the Tribune

It wasn’t Deep Throat and the story didn’t topple a presidency, but an anonymous phone call to a Moscow reporter did help establish the legal precedent that protects Idaho reporters today.

Two University of Idaho journalism students, Christopher Murray and Kyle Howerton, recently completed a documentary film marking the 25th anniversary of the case, known as In re Wright.
The film was shown to about 120 people a university symposium Monday, after which some of the main participants discussed the state of reporter privilege in the Internet Age.

The case began in the fall of 1982, when reporter Jim Wright of the Moscow Daily Idahonian wrote a story about a drug bust near Deary. The story was based largely on a law enforcement press release, which indicated that about 100 marijuana plants worth $50,000 to $60,000 had been seized.

The next day he received an anonymous call from someone disputing those figures. Through subsequent meetings, Wright determined the caller had been involved in growing the marijuana. Using information the caller provided, he was able to establish that only about a dozen plants and two pounds of marijuana had been seized.

Wright was later subpoenaed to testify in the case. When he refused to reveal his source, he was held in contempt and the paper was fined $500 per day. Publisher A.L. (Butch) Alford — now president of TPC Holdings Inc., which owns the Lewiston Tribune and Moscow-Pullman Daily News — appealed the case to the Idaho Supreme Court.

This was the second case Alford had taken to the Supreme Court. Just a few years earlier, in Caldero v. Tribune Publishing Co., the court had ruled that “no privilege against disclosure of confidential sources … exists in an absolute or qualified version.”

Charles (Chuck) Brown, the Lewiston attorney who argued both cases before the court, said protecting the identity of confidential sources is something newspapers have fought for since Colonial times. Every year there are stories about the hidden actions and wilful misrepresentations of government agencies that could only be written with help from unnamed sources. Protecting the identities of these individuals is crucial to a free press.

A handful of states recognize this by conferring absolute privilege on reporters, meaning they cannot be compelled to reveal their sources. Most states, however, have qualified privilege, in which the public’s right to know is balanced against other considerations.

In the Wright case, the justices explicitly refused to follow the Caldero precedent. Instead, they set their own standard. They said Idaho reporters have a qualified privilege and can be required to divulge their sources if three conditions are met: There must be probable cause indicating the reporter has information relevant to the case, it must be demonstrated that the information can’t be obtained by other means, and the information must be of a significant and compelling nature.

Wright, who has been a reporter and editor for 30 years attended Monday’s symposium, together with Alford, Brown, the two film-makers and ACLU attorney Ben Wizner.

After the Supreme Court issued its ruling, he said it remanded the case back to the lower court to determine if the three criteria were met “But funny enough, after two years in the legal system, nobody cared any more. No one ever called for a hearing to decide (if the criteria were met), and the dope in the evidence locker had rotted away.”

Reporter privilege continues to be a challenge in the Internet Age, with questions about who should qualify and what type of information is protected. Congress is also debating the merits of a federal shield law, which would address the question of privilege for those who cover the federal government.

As Brown indicated at the close of the documentary, this is an issue that deals with the protection of society, as well as of journalists. After all, he said, the genesis of shield laws “was free speech, not just free press.”

From the Lewiston Tribune

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