The Issue That Turns Reporters Into Jailbirds

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A classic First Amendment battle is brewing in Atlanta, yet another legal detonation stemming from the bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Richard Jewell, the man who was falsely targeted by authorities as a suspect, is suing the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the damaging portrayal he says the newspaper painted of him when it identified him as the focus of the investigation. On Thursday, the judge in the case ordered two of the paper's reporters to jail for refusing to divulge the confidential sources they used for the story. The paper immediately appealed the judge's decision.

A lot is at stake in this libel case. First, there is Jewell's claim that he cannot properly pursue his defamation case without access to the confidential sources. Then, says TIME senior writer Adam Cohen, "there is the strong belief in the media that reporters need to protect the confidentiality of their sources in order to be able to do their job." The protection of sources, however, is a doctrine that is still emerging in the law; the breadth of protection varies significantly from state to state, says Cohen, who often writes on legal issues. This case holds the potential of going all the way up the court ladder and setting a broad precedent. Its significance also stems from the fact that this is a libel case -- one dealing with reputation -- and not a criminal case involving knowledge of a crime, says Cohen. What standards are to be applied in such a situation will be closely scrutinized when a final appellate decision is handed down.