Highlights from the Legal Guide: Protecting Sources and Source Material

This is the sixth in a series of posts calling attention to some of the topics covered in the Citizen Media Legal Guide we began publishing in January. This past month, we rolled out the sections on Newsgathering and Privacy, which address the legal and practical issues you may encounter as you gather documents, take photographs or video, and collect other information.

In this post, we highlight the section on Protecting Sources and Source Material, which discusses the legal challenges in maintaining the confidentiality of sources and source material and outlines the federal and state laws that may protect you from forced disclosure of your newsgathering materials. We also provide several practical tips for protecting your sources and source material.

The ability to protect your sources and newsgathering materials is often critical to your being able to gather information and inform the public. In the course of assembling information for an article, post, podcast, or other work, you may obtain information that, for a number of reasons, you do not wish to make available to the public.

Ironically, confidentiality may be an essential part of bringing information to the public's attention because as a publisher, you may only be able to gather the information if you promise not to reveal the information's source. For example, reporting that involves the criticism of government and exposure of government and corporate wrongdoing often depends on the use of confidential sources.

Fortunately, the law provides tools with which to protect the information you obtain. Absent some kind of legal protection, a journalist or other individual gathering information for dissemination to the public may be compelled to identify his or her sources and produce documents in court and other governmental proceedings. Journalists and other citizens reporting the news have been asserting their right to keep their sources and materials confidential for longer than the United States has been an independent nation. In 1734, for example, John Peter Zenger refused to give the names of his sources when he was charged with seditiously libeling British Governor William Cosby of the New York Colony. Zenger, who was later tried and acquitted, was jailed for a month due to his refusal to identify his sources.

These legal protections are vital to the free flow of information in society. If reporters (and we use that term broadly here) are seen merely as an investigative arm of the government, individuals with information of great public concern may be afraid to share that information. As a result, the public may be deprived of information of critical importance to the proper functioning of our society and our democratic form of government.

The following sections address the legal challenges facing online publishers in maintaining the confidentiality of sources and source material and discusses the federal and state laws that may protect them from forced disclosure of this information.

When you gather and publish information, it may be important to you to protect the confidentiality of your sources or source material. You may not wish for your sources' identities to be revealed, and you may not want all of the information you have gathered to be public. Here are some practical tips for you to consider when seeking to protect your newsgathering information:
  • Be judicious about promising confidentiality: Promising confidentiality to your sources can provide benefits to you and your sources, but you should only offer it after you have carefully weighed the benefits and drawbacks. Review the section of this guide on Promising Confidentiality to Your Sources before making a decision. If your source demands confidentiality and your reporting requires the source, make sure you intend to maintain confidentiality if you agree. If you later decide you wish to reveal your source's identity, your source may be able to sue you if you break your promise.

  • Keep secrets secret: Once you have obtained information from a confidential source, keep the source's identity secret. It might be tempting to talk about a juicy piece of information you have discovered with your relatives, friends, or co-workers. As a practical matter, the more people who know the information, the more likely it is to be revealed. Moreover, if you reveal some information about your source's identity, you may be precluded from protecting the information in the future.

  • Research whether you can assert a "journalistic privilege" to protect your sources and unpublished information: Many states offer protection for "journalists" who receive subpoenas requesting this information. These privileges arise from a number of different sources of law, including shield laws passed by state legislatures, the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions, and the common law. Check the Legal Protections for Sources and Source Material section of this guide before revealing any information about your sources.

  • Consider where you publish your work: Where you publish your work can have an impact on your ability to protect your sources and newsgathering information. For instance, in some states you can only invoke the privilege to protect your sources if you publish in traditional print or broadcast media. In other states, you need only publish through an entity that regularly distributes news. See the Legal Protections for Sources and Source Material section of this guide for more information.

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