Get out of jail free? Journalists and the First Amendment

First Amendment panel

Recent high-profile First Amendment issues over confidential sources and access to information have raised important questions about the media's role and responsibilities. With their divergent positions, the two panelists found some common ground.

University of Colorado Law School professor Bob Nagel said that although journalists and courts play a major role in the post-Sept. 11 discussion of national security, they are not necessarily the best institutions to play that role. Journalists' inherent bias is to print information and underestimate the risk, and they're constantly critical and skeptical of government. Like the courts, they are not primary actors and are less likely to be held responsible if damage occurs.

As a longtime newsroom manager, Bob Moore said the courts have changed to increasingly favor subpoenaing journalists, a trend which is symptomatic of broader political issues. As journalists face jail time, Moore believes anonymous sources will be pressured to come forward, as in the Judith Miller case. Newsrooms must be more strict and deliberate about offering confidentiality, as well as with leaked documents.

Bob MooreBob Nagel

Facilitator Ruth Anna and the speakers agreed the current proposal for a national shield law for journalists won't go far. The public is reluctant to give special privileges to anyone, much less journalists, and doing so would require the tricky task of defining who is a journalist in the age of bloggers. The cases so far haven't presented an effective "poster child" case for a national shield law.

— Christine McManus, Colorado Press Women