[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia [official website] Thursday denied [PDF opinion] a petition for a new hearing brought by four journalists who were held in contempt of court [JURIST report] for refusing to reveal their sources as part of a civil lawsuit. Dr. Wen Ho Lee [advocacy website], an atomic scientist suspected of espionage who later pleaded to a lesser charge, filed a civil suit claiming that government agencies violated his privacy by disclosing information about him to reporters. The group of reporters have refused to disclose who their government sources were and in 2004, a federal district judge held them in contempt. That decision was affirmed [PDF opinion; JURIST report] in June by a three-judge panel of the appellate court. The full court met to determine whether to hear arguments by the journalists, ultimately declining to hear their case in a 4-4 split decision with two judges not participating. Two judges wrote strong dissents on the importance of hearing the First Amendment questions raised by the reporters, including Judge Tatel who wrote:
The outcome here illustrates the risk of limiting our inquiry to only need and exhaustion. Without slighting Lee's private interest in receiving compensation for governmental malfeasance, his claim pales in comparison to the public's interest in avoiding the chilling of disclosures about what the government then believed to be nuclear espionage. This case is thus very different from In re Grand Jury. Not only was that a criminal case, but there we held that the grand jury's interest in securing the name of a source suspected of committing a felony outweighed any applicable privilege. In re Grand Jury, 397 F.3d at 973. Lee's private interest in this civil suit implicates no similarly critical concerns, and it's hard to imagine how his interest could outweigh the public's interest in protecting journalists' ability to report without reservation on sensitive issues of national security. Instead of explaining why he believes his private litigation interest is sufficiently weighty to tip the scale in his favor, Lee asserts only that "[t]here is simply no countervailing interest to 'balance.'" Respondent's Br. 14. Lee is wrong. As Zerilli holds, the countervailing interest is the value, rooted in the First Amendment, of an "unfettered press" that ensures that citizens are "able to make informed political, social, and economic choices." Zerilli, 656 F.2d at 711.The New York Times has more.