ACLU Says NY Times Reporter Subpoena Is Assault On Free Press

February 1, 2008 12:00 am

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Congress Must Pass Federal Shield Law For Reporters

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Washington, DC – After reports that a federal grand jury issued a subpoena to New York Times reporter James Risen last week in an attempt to force disclosure of a confidential source, the American Civil Liberties Union today strongly objected to the subpoena, saying that basic First Amendment principles are at stake when reporters are called into the courtroom against their will. According to reports, a chapter in Mr. Risen’s book on the Central Intelligence Agency, “State of War,” piqued the interest of the Justice Department and consequently he has been ordered to appear before the grand jury next week.

“A bound and gagged press is not the free press of a democracy,” said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU. “The work of Mr. Risen, the New York Times and other publications has been tremendously significant in uncovering government abuses, and the ripple effects are still being felt. As we’ve seen with stories on NSA wiretapping, CIA black sites and extraordinary rendition, conversations between reporters and confidential sources can have historic consequences. We should do everything possible to protect that relationship.”

Legislation that would enact a federal shield law for journalists, The Free Flow of Information Act, has passed the House and is currently being considered by the Senate. The ACLU is urging the Senate to pass the House version, H.R. 2102, because it provides more meaningful protections for the free flow of information to the public than the Senate companion bill, S. 2035. Currently, forty-nine states and the District of Columbia recognize some form of reporters’ privilege, either through statute or common-law, but the absence of a federal reporters’ shield law has undercut these state shield laws. A federal shield law is needed to make certain that the protections afforded to journalists are concrete and consistent.

“Attempting to instill fear in a newsroom could have grave consequences,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The Justice Department is using its clout to bully and intimidate the press into submission. Using a subpoena to settlea score during a leak investigation is unacceptable. The media’s purpose is to keep the public informed and it should be free to do so without the threat of legal retribution. Congress must strengthen and pass the Free Flow of Information Act to ensure that reporters can continue to inform the American public.”

To read the ACLU’s report on the need for a reporters’ shield law, go to:

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