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Confidential sources.

In this time of eroding individual and communal rights, nowhere are the hallmarks of "free" society fading as fast as here in Spokane, Washington. This is not a new role for the city. It was here that the Industrial Workers of the World waged one of the nation's first free-speech fights. Early in this century, Spokane's elites jailed members of the IWW for "soap-boxing" - speaking out against the use of exploitative employment brokers by capitalists.

Now, decades after the IWW struggled and lost here, Spokane again is the site of a constitutional fight, one that I am at the center of. Fortunately, jail conditions have improved since IWW members died of pneumonia while under arrest, but the mentality has not. I find myself in the midst of a First Amendment case with little community support and a prosecutor whose mentality harkens back to the anti-IWW days.

I was jailed on May 14 for refusing to answer a Federal grand jury's questions about my research on the animal-rights movement. In August 1991, while I was on the East Coast vacationing and conducting research, an animal-experimentation laboratory was vandalized at Washington State University, where I am a doctoral student in sociology. Several animals were set free or stolen. The damage amounted to $100,000. Ron Coronado, who was house-sitting for me when the raid occurred, was identified as a suspect. I had met him while I was researching my book, Eco-Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement. Coronado has admitted faxing a news release about the raid to the Associated Press, but he has denied any other involvement.

The Government is attempting to force me to testify about confidential interviews I may have conducted with those responsible for the raid. Though I am not a suspect, I was jailed under a Federal statute that allows the incarceration of "recalcitrant grand-jury witnesses." In coming after me with the clumsy instrument of the grand jury, the Government is attempting to bulldoze its way through the issues I have raised regarding the crucial nature of social research in this society. A Federal district court ruled in February that a newspaper reporter in my situation would have to testify or go to jail. A Federal appeals court appears to be of the same mind, though its reasoning is a mystery - it announced its opinion in May but has yet to publish it. Recently, I requested that the Supreme Court review my case.

Past Supreme Court decisions have construed the concept of the press broadly. I publish the fruits of my research and analysis, employing far more facts than does the typical journalist. So my claim to kinship with the press is probably not a central issue. What is of crucial concern is the Federal courts' treatment of those of us who use confidential sources - persons whose identities must be withheld in order to obtain information from them.

In 1972, the Supreme Court issued the guiding precedent for claims of a "source privilege." Written by recently retired Justice Byron White, Branzburg v. Hayes established that reporters who witness crimes committed by confidential sources have no protection from forced grand jury testimony. They must reveal the identities of those sources when told to do so.

That case was bad enough. But it is Branzburg's distorted legacy that is being used against me. Federal courts have extended it in such a way that I can be ordered to testify even though I was on the other side of the continent when the raid at WSU occurred. That means any information I might have from confidential sources is second-hand at best, but nevertheless is grist for the grand jury's mill.

Promising confidentiality is the norm in social-science research. Yet by extending Branzburg to encompass researchers and writers who do not witness crimes, the courts create a setting wherein those assurances are meaningless. When journalists and scholars can no longer offer confidentiality to their sources in good faith - and the rulings in my case and others make it clear that they cannot - then society suffers, for the foundation of modern social-science research, and a crucial tool in reportage, is irreparably undermined. That leads to a stanching of the flow of information to the public: No more Watergates or Pentagon Papers, no Tearoom Trade or Tally's Corner.

The only solutions immediately available to scholars and reporters are absolute anonymity for sources, abdication to the Government's oppressive tactics, or resistance and a willingness to go to jail for a right the courts refuse to recognize. None of these furthers the interests of a "free and open society."

In 1967, the Supreme Court wrote, "Our nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us...." Ten years earlier, the Court observed, "Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die."

Tragically, this vision of the crucial role of the academy in society - as a partner with the media in that most essential of processes in a democracy, the transfer of information and ideas - is being perverted by the Government. It seeks to turn scholars into detectives, to use our work to maintain order. I refused to accept my metaphorical badge, preferring to live as a ward of the state rather than as an agent of the state.

How many others will be forced to make the same decision before Federal law or Supreme Court precedent is changed?
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Title Annotation:sociology student jailed for refusing to identify research interviewees
Author:Scarce, Rik
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:917
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