By Rosanna Cavanagh
The New England First Amendment Coalition today sent a petition (.pdf) to the United States Justice Department requesting that it withdraw its subpoena of The New York Times reporter James Risen to testify in the trial of former CIA employee Jeffrey Sterling as to his confidential source for information published in Risen’s 2006 book “State of War.”
The petition reminds Attorney General Eric Holder that press freedom “has been extremely important to our society from colonial times to the present” and, as George Mason once wrote, that “the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.” The words of Nancy Conway of the Salt Lake City Tribune are also noted: “The truth is hard to take sometimes. It isn’t always convenient. It can be disappointing. It can be ugly. But knowing — having information about ourselves and the world we live in — is part of our national identity. Our democracy relies on an informed citizenry. Thoughtful, fair, balanced comprehensive reporting in print and in photos or video may be the best way to know what’s going on — the way to best inform ourselves. Information is what keeps us free from tyranny.”
The petition also points out that the qualified reporters privilege denied to Mr. Risen by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is the same privilege that Justice Powell wrote should be available on a case-by-case basis to reporters in his deciding concurrence in the 5-4 Branzburg v. Hayes U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Earlier this month, NEFAC honored Mr. Risen with the 4th Annual Stephen Hamblett First Amendment award at its February 7 awards luncheon at the Boston Park Plaza hotel. “For sure if you’ve listened to a federal judge order you to disclose your confidential sources for your reporting on a matter of the most profound national interest and you’ve responded to that judge ‘respectfully your honor, I decline,’ well, then, you are playing a profound part in the struggle for First Amendment freedoms,” said Robert Bertsche, partner at Prince Lobel Tye and chairman of NEFAC’s Awards Committee.
Walter Robinson, distinguished professor of journalism at Northeastern University and chairman of NEFAC’s Nominations Committee, said to James Risen in his introduction of the award, “Your willingness, if need be, to forego your own freedom in defense of ours is breathtaking for the courage it took. It is not possible to imagine a more principled and patriotic defense of the First Amendment. For you and, surely, for Penny and your family this is a fix you would rather not be in. There was no justifiable reason for the government to put you in this position. There is every justification for the Supreme Court to take your appeal.”
Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times, called James Risen “the kind of colleague and reporter that every journalist dreams about working with…” She explained that “Jim continues to do what he always has done… report newsworthy issues of importance to the public in a fair, deep and probing way.” Quoting Robert Kaiser, former managing editor of The Washington Post, she queried “‘If a war on terror is being waged in the name of the citizens of this country, doesn’t the public have a right to be informed about it?'”
James Risen discussed the change in the landscape of rights for American journalists since his early beginnings as a stringer for The Providence Journal. “I never thought in 1977 that we would see an environment where for doing your job as a reporter, that you would be called a traitor and end up in jail. I always thought that was what happened in Russia or in China… I believe that now what we are seeing is part of the larger post-9/11 political climate that has changed America. We’re now into the second decade of the transformation of our culture in ways that none of us want to acknowledge because it is depressing and ugly… We have allowed ourselves to become a security state in ways that none of us looking back realize because it has happened so incrementally and gradually.”
Asked by a reporter from The Boston Globe after the luncheon what makes him willing to go to jail, Risen answered, “the choice is get out of the business — give up everything I believe in — or go to jail. They’ve backed me into a corner.”
NEFAC reminds the Justice Department that both President Barack Obama and Attorney General Holder have said that they support the Free Flow of Information Act, otherwise known as the “reporters’ shield bill,” as drafted by Senator Charles E. Schumer, a development more recent than the latest subpoena of Mr. Risen. To be consistent with this position, it would be sensible for the Justice Department to drop the subpoena of Mr. Risen. It would also be in keeping with our nation’s long standing and not yet forgotten history of freedom of the press.
Rosanna is executive director of New England First Amendment Coalition.