A federal appeals court has come to the rescue of a journalist who faced financial ruin if she continued to shield her confidential sources from a scientist suing the federal government. That's good news. But the only reliable protection for reporters who rely (usually reluctantly) on anonymous sources is a federal reporter's privilege similar to those in two-thirds of the states.
Legislation in Congress to recognize such a privilege may have a better chance because of U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton's heavy-handed attempt to force Toni Locy, a former reporter for USA Today, to violate a core ethical principle rooted in the 1st Amendment. At issue are sources on which Locy relied in reporting on the investigation into anthrax attacks that killed five people in 2001. Steven J. Hatfill, a Justice Department biowarfare expert who for a time was a "person of interest" in the investigation, is suing his former employer under the federal Privacy Act.
Locy insists that she doesn't recall who in the FBI or the Justice Department confirmed that Hatfill was under investigation, but Walton has ordered her to disclose all of her confidential sources at Justice. Until she does, Walton ruled last week, Locy must pay out of her own pocket daily contempt-of-court fines that would increase from $500 the first week to $1,000 the second week to $5,000 thereafter.