In a minor victory for press freedom, journalist James Risen has prevailed after a seven-year legal battle to maintain the confidentiality of a source in the face of government demands that he reveal it. According to a New York Times report (subscription required), the Justice Department said on Monday it would not call Risen to the stand in the trial of former CIA official Jeffrey Sterling. Sterling, whose trial began Tuesday, is charged with leaking the details of a poorly-executed plan to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, which Risen recounted in his 2006 book State of War. The Risen case, however, still underscores the glaring absence of a federal reporters’ shield law.
Risen’s struggle had become a cause célèbre among journalists and free speech groups concerned that the government’s crackdown on internal leaks doubles as a crackdown on the reporters receiving those leaks. After Risen refused to comply with a subpoena compelling his testimony in the Sterling trial, a federal appeals court ordered him to do so. Risen then took his case to the Supreme Court, which in June declined to hear his case.
Most states have shield laws that allow reporters to honor source confidentiality, but the federal government doesn’t—and that’s a problem. The Authors Guild was hopeful Risen’s case would bolster the enactment chances of the ill-fated Free Flow of Information Act, a federal reporters’ shield law considered by Congress last summer that would generally allow journalists to protect the identity of their sources, while providing clear rules for the circumstances in which they would be compelled to reveal them.
“In choosing not to put James Risen on the stand, the government showed admirable discretion,” said Authors Guild Executive Director Mary Rasenberger. “But the fact remains that without a federal shield law, he could have been compelled to reveal a source. We hope that, with recent events underscoring the gravity of the free speech and free press issues facing today’s world, the incoming Congress resolves to move forward with a federal shield law.”
The Authors Guild lent its support to the previous iteration of the Free Flow of Information Act, joining the Newspaper Association of America in statements urging Senate passage of the Bill in both 2013 and 2014.