innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Chilling Effect

This article about new legal challenges to newsgathering originally ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on May 31,2006:

By Maeve Reston, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WASHINGTON -- The eight-year legal dispute between U.S. Reps. John Boehner and James A. McDermott has the elements and plot twists of the most intriguing kinds of Capitol Hill dramas, and it still has no final episode.

First, there was the over-the-phone strategy session among top House Republicans just before their leader began tumbling from power -- a call illegally intercepted and taped by a Florida couple on their police scanner.

Then, the couple's secret delivery of the tape to Mr. McDermott of Washington state, the ethics committee's top Democrat, who leaked it to the press, got caught and was later slapped with a lawsuit by Mr. Boehner of Ohio, now the House Republican leader, whose cell-phone conversation was the one intercepted.

As the case has spiraled up and down in the courts -- with a panel of U.S. appeals court judges giving Mr. Boehner the most recent victory in March -- it has raised serious concerns for news organizations about whether an eventual win by the majority leader could endanger both sources who hand over information they've obtained illegally and the reporters who disclose it.
Mr. McDermott's supporters note that some of history's biggest scoops -- the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate and Clinton-Lewinsky scandals -- have come from sources who may have broken rules to make information public. For that reason, 18 major news organizations and journalism groups, including the New York Times, Dow Jones & Co., ABC, NBC and CBS, have backed Mr. McDermott.

They argue there was legitimate public interest in the illegally taped conversation, because then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., was discussing how to contain the political fallout from his admission that he had broken House rules, a violation of an agreement he had made with the House ethics panel, which had asked Mr. Gingrich not to orchestrate his own defense.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the news groups argued to the appeals court last year that a Boehner win could "jeopardize and chill traditional newsgathering."

For the whole story, click here.

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