Free Speech and Source Protection for Journalists

Gautam Bhatia explores journalistic source protection from the perspective of the right to freedom of speech & expression. In this post, he articulates clearly the centrality of source protection to press freedoms, and surveys the differing legal standards in the US, Europe and India.

In the previous post, we discussed Vincent Blasi’s pathological perspective on free speech. The argument forms part of a broader conception that Blasi calls the “checking value of the First Amendment”. Blasi argues that the most important role of free speech is to “check” government abuses and reveal to the public information that government wants to keep secret from them. Naturally, in this model – which is a specific application of the democracy-centred theory of free speech – the press and the media become the most important organs of a system of free expression.

In addition to the checking value of free speech, there is another consideration that is now acknowledged by Courts in most jurisdictions, including our Supreme Court. When we speak about the “right” to free speech, we do not just mean – as might seem at first glance – the right of speakers to speak unhindered. We also mean the rights of listeners and hearers to receive information. A classic example is the Indian Supreme Court’s opinion in LIC v. Manubhai D. Shah, which used Article 19(1)(a) to vest a right-of-reply in a person who had been criticised in a newspaper editorial, on the ground of providing a balanced account to readers. Furthermore, instruments like the ICCPR and the ECHR make this clear in the text of the free speech right as well. For instance, Article 19 of the ICCPR states thateveryone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.”

In addition to the individual right to receive information and ideas, free speech need not be understood exclusively in the language of a right at all. Free speech also serves as a public good – that is to say, a society with a thriving system of free expression is, all things considered, better off than a society without it. The unique value that free speech serves, as a public good, is in creating an atmosphere of accountability and openness that goes to the heart of the constitutive ideals of modern liberal democracies. As Justice Hugo Black noted, a good system of free speech rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public.” Unsurprisingly, he went on to add immediately after, that “a free press is a condition of a free society.”

If free speech is about the right to receive information, and about the public good of a society in which information circulates freely and widely, then the vehicles of information occupy a central position in any theory or doctrine about the scope of the constitutional right. In our societies, the press is perhaps the most important of those vehicles.

Establishing the crucial role of the free press in free speech theory is important to understand a crucial issue that has largely gone unaddressed in Indian constitutional and statutory law: that of source-protection laws for journalists. A source-protection law exempts journalists from having to compulsorily reveal their sources when ordered to do so by government or by courts. Such exemptions form part of ordinary Indian statutory law: under the Indian Evidence Act, for example, communications between spouses are “privileged” – that is, inadmissible as evidence in Court.

The question came up before the US Supreme Court in Branzburg v. Hayes. In a 5-4 split, the majority ruled against an unqualified reporters’ privilege, that could be invoked in all circumstances. However, all the justices understood the importance of the issue. Justice White, writing for the majority, held that government must  convincingly show a substantial relation between the information sought and a subject of overriding and compelling state interest.” Justice Powell’s concurring opinion emphasised that the balance must be struck on a case-to-case basis. Since Branzburg, there has been no federal legislation dealing with source protection. A number of states have, however, passed “shield laws”, albeit with broad national security exceptions.

Perhaps the reason for the American Supreme Court’s reticence lies in its reluctance – notwithstanding Justice Black’s ringing oratory – to place journalists on any kind of special pedestal above the rest of the public. The European Court of Human Rights, however, has felt no such compunctions. In Goodwin v. UK, the ECHR made it clear that the press serves a crucial function as a “public watchdog” (a consistent theme in the ECHR’s jurisprudence). Compelled disclosure of sources would definitely have a chilling effect on the functioning of the press, since sources would be hesitant to speak – and journalists would be reluctant to jeopardise their sources – if it was easy to get a court order requiring disclosure. Consequently, the ECHR – which is normally hesitant to intervene in domestic matters, and accords a wide margin of appreciation to states, found the UK to be in violation of the Convention. Journalists could only be compelled to reveal their sources if there was an “overriding requirement in the public interest.”

Where both the United States and Europe have recognised the importance of source-protection, and the simple fact that some degree of source protection is essential if the press is to perform its checking – or watchdog – function effectively, Indian jurisprudence on the issue is negligible. The Law Commission has twice proposed some manner of a shield law, but no concrete action has been taken upon its recommendations.

In the absence of any law, Article 19(1)(a) could play a direct role in the matter. As argued at the beginning of this post, the Supreme Court has accepted the democracy-based justification for free speech, as well as the individual right to receive information. Both these arguments necessarily make the role of the press crucial, and the role of the press is dependant on maintaining the confidentiality of sources. Thus, there ought to be an Article 19(1)(a) right that journalists can invoke against compelled disclosure. If this is so, then any disclosure can only be required through law; and the law, in turn, must be a reasonable restriction in the interests of public order, which – in turn, has normally been given a narrow interpretation by the Supreme Court in cases such as Ram Manohar Lohia.

It is unclear, however, whether the Courts will be sympathetic. As this article points out, while the Supreme Court has yet to rule on this issue, various High Courts have ordered disclosure, seemingly without much concern for the free speech implications. One thing is evident though: either a strong shield law, or a definitive Supreme Court ruling, is required to fill the current vacuum that exists.

Gautam Bhatia — @gautambhatia88 on Twitter — is a graduate of the National Law School of India University (2011), and has just received an LLM from the Yale Law School. He blogs about the Indian Constitution at Here at CIS, he blogs on issues of online freedom of speech and expression.

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