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Privileged Communications

December 2, 1959

Report Outline
Protection of News Sources in Courts
Position of the Press in Other Forums
Recognized Confidential Communications

Protection of News Sources in Courts

A reporter as a rule will decline to tell a court, a legislative committee, or other inquirer the name of a person who has given him information used in a news story without attribution. Yet the so-called newsmen's privilege has no more than limited legal standing. Neither the common law nor the federal or state constitutions recognize a right on the part of reporters to refuse to identify a news source at the bidding of competent authority. Certain state statutes alone extend the privilege to journalists within the jurisdiction of state courts.

All the same, most reporters will go to jail rather than disclose the identity of an informant, and the newspapers for which they work will almost invariably support them to the hilt. Paradoxically, however, reporters and publishers alike are of two minds about the advisability of seeking general statutory recognition of a right to protect news sources. The balance of opinion seems to oppose such protection as possibly endangering full enjoyment of constitutional guarantees of press freedom. Meanwhile, certain communications in other areas have been enjoying a privileged status that has come under question only in recent years.

Absence of Basic Right to Refuse Evidence

Legal scholars and professional groups long have debated to what extent a pledge of privacy or compact of secrecy should be allowed to prevail against demands for exposure of the truth in a court of justice. Recent judicial decisions have been remolding the concept of privileged communications between attorney and client, physician and patient, clergyman and penitent, and husband and wife. They have also established some legal guidelines on claims of privilege in the practice of journalism.

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