Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
News organizations have claimed that the First Amendment compels a recognition by government of an exception to the ancient rule that every citizen owes to his government a duty to give what testimony he is capable of giving. 1 The argument for a limited exemption to permit reporters to conceal their sources and to keep confidential certain information they obtain and choose at least for the moment not to publish was rejected in Branzburg v. Hayes 2 by a closely divided Court.
Fair and effective law enforcement aimed at providing security for the person and property of the individual is a fundamental function of government, and the grand jury plays an important, constitutionally mandated role in this process. On the records now before us, we perceive no basis for holding that the public interest in law enforcement and in ensuring effective grand jury proceedings is insufficient to override the consequential, but uncertain, burden on news gathering which is said to result from insisting that reporters, like other citizens, respond to relevant questions put to them in the course of a valid grand jury investigation or criminal trial. 3 Not only was it uncertain to what degree confidential informants would be deterred from providing information, said Justice White for the Court, but the conditional nature of the privilege claimed might not mitigate the deterrent effect, leading to claims for an absolute privilege. Confidentiality could be protected by the secrecy of grand jury proceedings and by the experience of law enforcement officials in themselves dealing with informers. Difficulties would arise as well in identifying who should have the privilege and who should not. But the principal basis of the holding was that the investigation and exposure of criminal conduct was a governmental function of such importance that it overrode the interest of reporters in avoiding the incidental burden on their newsgathering activities occasioned by such governmental inquiries. 4
The Court observed that Congress, as well as state legislatures and state courts, are free to adopt privileges for reporters. 5 Although efforts in Congress have failed, 49 states have done so – 33 (plus the District of Columbia) by statute and 16 by court decision, with Wyoming the sole holdout. 6 As for federal courts, Federal Rule of Evidence 501 provides that
the privilege of a witness . . . shall be governed by the principles of the common law as they may be interpreted by the courts of the United States in the light of reason and experience. 7 The federal courts have not resolved whether the common law provides a journalists’ privilege. 8
Nor does the status of an entity as a newspaper (or any other form of news medium) protect it from issuance and execution on probable cause of a search warrant for evidence or other material properly sought in a criminal investigation. 9 The press had argued that to permit searches of newsrooms would threaten the ability to gather, analyze, and disseminate news, because searches would be disruptive, confidential sources would be deterred from coming forward with information because of fear of exposure, reporters would decline to put in writing their information, and internal editorial deliberations would be exposed. The Court thought that First Amendment interests were involved, but it seemed to doubt that the consequences alleged would occur, and it observed that the built-in protections of the warrant clause would adequately protect those interests and noted that magistrates could guard against abuses when warrants were sought to search newsrooms by requiring particularizations of the type, scope, and intrusiveness that would be permitted in the searches. 10