Confidential sources (press)

In Re: Shain (4th Cir. on confidential sources)

Four South Carolina reporters who covered the bribery investigation of several state legislators were subpoenaed to testify in the subsequent criminal trial. Even after their motion to quash the subpoenas failed, the reporters refused to comply, asserting that: 1) they had a qualified privilege against being compelled to testify on newsgathering; and 2) the subpoenas violated Department of Justice guidelines that say the government must fail to exhaust all reasonable alternative sources. The district judge found them in contempt, and the Court affirmed, citing only an incidental burden on freedom of the press. Without evidence of governmental harassment or bad faith, the reporters had no privilege different from that of any other citizen not to testify about knowledge relevant to a criminal prosecution. Furthermore, the government did make clear that it could uncover no other source with evidence that the state senator had made false exculpatory statements.

U.S. v. Morison (4th Cir. on confidential sources)

Morison was an analyst for the Naval Intelligence Support Center and a part-time employee of a British publication concerning military armaments. He obtained secret Naval satellite photographs of Soviet nuclear-powered vessels and sent the photographs to both the British publisher and the Washington Post, which published them. After the Navy discovered that Morison had stolen and disseminated the photographs, he was convicted for theft and for violating the Espionage Act. On appeal, defendant contended that that the statutes did not encompass his alleged improper conduct, and if they did, the statutes were unconstitutional. The court affirmed, holding that defendant's illegal conduct was encompassed by statutes' clear and unambiguous language. Further, because the First Amendment did not prohibit prosecutions for unauthorized leaks of damaging national security information, Morison’s convictions were not unconstitutional.

Brown v. Commonwealth

Brown was convicted of a murder in an auto parts junkyard. A newspaper article published on the day after the killing quoted a "spokesman" for the sheriff's department who gave a different version of the facts than the prosecution later presented in court. Brown wanted to make the reporter give up the identity of that confidential source, but the trial court refused to do so. Here, the Court affirmed that decision, ruling that a journalist’s promise of confidentiality should yield only when a defendant’s need is essential to a fair trial. In this case, the Court ruled, the confidential statements would not have affected Brown’s conviction or the severity of his sentence.
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