Confidential

Should scholars and newsmen be required to reveal the identity of those who supply them with information?

Generally speaking, no. So-called shield laws, which now exist in some twenty states, tend to serve a good social purpose in a democracy. Few people doubt the desirability of shielding clergymen, lawyers, and physicians in this way. In the case of newsmen, it is perhaps even more important to the public interest that sources of information be protected, lest they dry up and important data go unreported. Often the reporter is put on the spot for conveying information that, though it is embarrassing to a few, deserves to be public knowledge. Occasionally, there is risk of reprisal—even a threat to life or limb—against reporter or source if the source is revealed. These persons need the protection of the law.

Protection of scholars, upon whom the public is not as directly dependent for important information, is somewhat more difficult to justify. But there are sensitive issues in which reprisal against scholars is conceivable, and therefore extending the legal shield to them seems reasonable.

On the other hand, the public’s right to know, often cited as the reason for shield laws, can be inhibited as well as advanced by protection of sources. The identity of a source and his reasons for disclosure may be an integral part of the story. Like everyone else, suppliers of information have vested interests. Those who reveal secrets out of patriotism or moral principle warrant respect. But some whistle-blowers have bad motives, as do some campaign contributors. By law we now require full disclosure of the names of political donors. It seems reasonable that newsmen, protected by shield laws, should feel some moral obligation ...

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