JUDGING BY THE PANIC surfacing in newspapers and magazines across the country, the press and the public face the gravest threat ever to the right to print and the right to know. Part of this panic is based on illusion: part is grounded on dangerous truth.
The first illusion is the supposed novelty of the threat. The press has been chummier with past administrators; some bureaucracies have been freer with information. But pressure on journalists to hold off on criticism or to stick to already public sources of information has always existed. The panic is misleading because the government's ability to wiretap, to classify documents over-zealously, and to regulate the electronic media through licensing investigations pose more immediate threats to the public's access to information. No one is advocating outright censorship or the licensing of newspapers. The pressures confronting the press are less direct, if not less dangerous.
Newspapers face a threat not to their right to print, but to their right to get facts otherwise hidden from the public. If newsmen must step before grand juries, and newsmen's sources know that these journalists can be compelled to divulge their sources' identities, those sources will no longer be available. To argue that the names of reporters' informants are needed for the pursuit of justice obscures the facts: unless confidential sources believe their anonymity is guaranteed, the information they provide will not be available to any reporter, much less to the courts or to the public.
Massachusetts legislator James W. Segel '67 has proposed a state law to provide unlimited protection for the anonymity of sources to writers who rely on confidential conversations for information. The bill also protects the contents of these the bill is amended to protect a reporter's notes absolutely where this information might incriminate a source even in felony cases, this measure, if passed, would set an important precedent for press freedom.
Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, in dissenting from the crucial Caldwell decision, wrote that the government has amassed the power "to suffocate both people and causes." Passing the Segel bill with the suggested amendment would help undercut one source of that power, and at least protect the rights of the Massachusetts press to operate freely.
Cambridge residents should urge state legislators to enact a strengthened Segel proposal, and petition Congressmen and Senators to pass a similar Federal law.