Protecting sources, free speech vital for all U.S. citizens

Friday, March 21, 2014

We've noticed a few news stories that are of concern to those of us in the news business, but citizens of all stripes should listen up.

Free speech and protecting sources -- a key part of open government -- are at stake in the latest examples.

Although he's not involved in news gathering, any reporter who has agreed to keep a source confidential can sympathize with a retired Florida detective, who was sentenced to two weeks in jail for contempt of court.

What did Richard Masten, who is now director of the Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers, do?

Nothing less than eat a piece of paper, containing identification that could be used to identify a source who had been promised confidentiality under the Crime Stoppers program.

"We promised the people that give us information to solve murders, serious violent crimes in this community, that they can call us with an assurance that they will remain anonymous," he said.

The judge stayed Masten's sentence so he could, um, digest the situation a little longer.

More on point for journalists is the case of Joseph Hosey, reporter for an online news organization, Patch.com, who was ordered to testify about his confidential source in a murder trial.

A judge ordered Hosey to reveal the identity of the person who supplied him with a police report that contained details of a double murder in 2013.

The judge had already forced 500 law enforcement officials to swear that they were not the source of the leak, so one of them was obviously lying.

Hosey didn't have any evidence to eat on the stand, but he did refuse to disclose the source, so the judge fined him $1,000 plus $300 a day until he complied. The fines are on hold pending Hosey's appeal, and the Reporters Committee for the freedom of the Press and a coalition of 38 other media organizations have filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the reporter.

Closer to home is the case of the Creighton, Nebraska, City Council, which told a resident of the 1,200 resident town to stop writing letters to the editor of a local newspaper criticizing their actions.

City officials complained that the writer, Mike Nutting, provided false information on local bank interest rates in his criticism of a city administrator, and that one of his letters regarding the administrator was sexist.

The Creighton city attorney also demanded a written apology from Nutting, which was to be approved by the City Council before being published in the local newspaper.

Nutting refused to apologize and wrote yet another critical letter to the editor in December, which triggered a legal response by the City Council, which in turn drew the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I want an open government that shares what it is doing," Nutting said in a statement. "The Creighton City Council is not just censoring me, but discouraging anyone from speaking up and being involved."

We don't know details of the controversy, nor have we read any of Nutting's letters.

Is he just a trouble maker? Are the city manager and council thin-skinned or, worse, up to something underhanded?

Again, we don't know.

But like any local government, the Creighton City Council can impose its will on its constituents and over their tax dollars, by force of law. Citizens must not grant that power lightly, nor ignore how it is used once it is granted.

The city's correct response is to be honest with the voters, correct any misinformation that has been presented and face the issues head-on, not get attorneys and the ACLU involved.

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