Thursday, December 02, 2004Eugene Volokh in today's New York Times on the consequences of extending "journalistic privilege" to bloggers:
Because of the Internet, anyone can be a journalist. Some so-called Weblogs - Internet-based opinion columns published by ordinary people - have hundreds of thousands of readers. I run a blog with more than 10,000 daily readers. We often publish news tips from friends or readers, some of which come with a condition of confidentiality.100 extra points if you know which song inspired this post's title. Think silly, think
The First Amendment can't give special rights to the established news media and not to upstart outlets like ours. Freedom of the press should apply to people equally, regardless of who they are, why they write or how popular they are.
Yet when everyone is a journalist, a broad journalist's privilege becomes especially costly.
On the one hand, tips from confidential sources often help journalists (print or electronic) uncover crime and misconduct. If journalists had to reveal such sources, many of these sources would stop talking. On the other hand, some tips are rightly made illegal.
The best solution may be to borrow a principle from other privileges, like those for confidential communications to lawyers, psychotherapists and spouses. The law has generally recognized that protecting the confidentiality of such communications is more important than forcing a person's testimony.
But it has also limited the privilege. Communications that facilitate crime or fraud, for example, are not protected. I may confess my crimes to a lawyer, but if I try to hire him to help me commit my crime, he may be obligated to testify against me.
Maybe a journalist's privilege should likewise be limited. Lawmakers could pass legislation that protects leakers who lawfully reveal information, like those who blow the whistle on governmental or corporate misconduct. But if a leaker tries to use a journalist as part of an illegal act - for example, by disclosing a tax return or the name of a C.I.A. agent so that it can be published - then the journalist may be ordered to testify.
Such a rule may well deter some sources from coming forward. But they will be the very sources that society should want to deter, to protect privacy and safety. In any event, the rules should be the same for old media and new, professional and amateur. Any journalist's privilege should extend to every journalist. [read full article]