The Fourth Estate
Annette Buchanan, 20-year-old Managing Editor of The Oregon Daily Emerald, has unwittingly attracted national interest over a case which, once again, examines a reporter's legal right to protect his sources.
After interviewing seven students who smoked marijuana at the University of Oregon, Miss Buchanan wrote an article under the banner headline: "Students Condone Marijuana Use," which estimated that 200-400 students at the University smoked pot. Lane County District Attorney William Frye subpoenaed the Senior co-ed to testify befort a grand jury, and demanded that she reveal her sources. After three refusals, County Judge William Leavy ordered her to stand trial in contempt of court. Miss Buchanan was convicted last Wednesday, but will appeal the decision and sentence to the Oregon Supreme Court.
The crux of the case involves an important conflict of loyalties. Should a reporter reveal the names of people when they could lead to the arrest of a criminal, or should he protect his sources and be prepared to go to jail. Miss Buchanan faces a six-month jail term and a fine of $300.
Presently there are twelve states whost laws allow the press the sanctity of confidence: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania. In the other 38 states, reporters are only protected by a tradition of a liberal interpretation of the freedom of the press.
At its best, the press performs an invaluable service to the community by keeping it informed on all matters regardless of whether they are controversial or illegal. The press can be an essential link between society and its marginal members, a form of communication which can promote understanding between the law and the lawbreakers. The press cannot perform this function if it does not have the right to protect its sources--without this right, talking to a reporter would be tantamount to confessing to a judge.
The law which allows a judge to hold a reporter in contempt of court, until now, has been leniently interpreted. But leniency or not, there is no excuse for the law; members of the press should turn every Buchanan hearing into a test case to pressure legislation which allows reportorial confidence. In the final analysis of costs to the society, it would be more expensive to block the channels of communication than to protect confidential sources.
Unfortunately this hearing does not seem to be shaping into a test case; Miss Buchanan's defense is in something less than the best tradition of the courageous press, and District Attorney Frye's prosecution is less than a paragon of justice. Buchanan is reported as having said that she will appeal the case to stall for time (the appeal should take about a year) and if she is still required to come up with the names at that time, she will be perfectly willing to reveal her sources. "A year from now people won't be around and I'll be through with school." Someone should have told her that a true pledge of confidence doesn't expire after a year.
To make the mockery complete, the D.A. who is prosecuting attended Oregon University and was a member of the Emerald-- the newspaper currently under attack. Last year he told an Oregon journalism class, "Don't break a confidence." This year, Frye has decided that you should break a confidence "when ordered to do so by the court." What he had meant before was that a reporter should protect sources such as the holders of public office--like District Attorney Frye for example?