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Federal judge orders reporters to divulge sources

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         D.C. CIRCUIT         Confidentiality/Privilege    

Federal judge orders reporters to divulge sources

  • U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ordered five reporters to disclose the names of their sources in stories about an investigation of a former nuclear weapons scientist.

Oct. 15, 2003 — Five reporters were ordered by a federal judge last week to reveal the confidential sources they used in writing stories about Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a former nuclear weapons scientist accused of spying for China.

On Oct. 9, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson in Washington, D.C., gave the order to reporters from The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press and CNN. Washington D.C. law provides a reporter’s privilege to protect the identities of confidential sources. But Jackson held that since Lee’s privacy case is based on a federal statute, the law is not applicable and reporters must rely on a First Amendment argument.

Jackson denied efforts by the news media outlets to quash the subpoenas under such a First Amendment argument, finding that the identity of the sources who leaked government information on Lee was of central importance to his case against government agencies and that he had exhausted all “reasonable” alternative sources for that information. Jackson noted that the reasonableness requirement does not mean that a subpoenaing party must try questioning virtually every possible source of the information before turning to journalists.

The order stems from a lawsuit brought by Lee against the U.S. Department of Justice, Department of Energy, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Lee is alleging officials at the departments and FBI leaked personal information about him to the press while attempted to charge him with stealing U.S. nuclear technology secrets for China while working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Fifty-nine counts of felony espionage were filed against Lee, but the government eventually dropped them all after finding little to no evidence. Lee pleaded guilty to a single felony count of copying classified information onto computer disks.

Dave Tomlin, assistant general counsel for The Associated Press, says the media outlets will likely appeal Jackson’s order. Furthermore, Tomlin said he believed the judge needed “more reasons to find that Lee had met his burden” of finding alternate sources of the information sought.

“He knocked on a few doors and didn’t get an answer,” said Tomlin. “Now that’s supposed to be grounds for breaking down the doors of the newsroom? We don’t think that’s what the constitution says is appropriate under these circumstances.”

(Lee v. U.S. Department of Justice; Media Counsel: Lee Levine, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, Washington, D.C. (L.A. Times, A.P.); Charles Tobin, Holland & Knight, Washington, D.C. (CNN reporter); Floyd Abrams, Cahill Gordon & Reindel, New York (New York Times)) AS

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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