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The recent incarceration of New York Times reporter Judith Miller for refusing to divulge a confidential source represents a blow to free press principles. Faced with a grand jury subpoena, Miller needed the best First Amendment lawyer in the nation. Enter Floyd Abrams-the premier defender of a free press in America over the past three decades. But sometimes even a brilliant lawyer cannot save the day: The Supreme Court rejected Abrams’ impassioned plea to intervene. Why news organizations have repeatedly turned to Abrams as their paladin is deftly revealed in his superb book, Speaking Freely: Trials of the First Amendment (Viking 2005), that vividly recounts some of his courtroom battles on behalf of reporters, newspapers and the electronic media as they faced criminal charges, injunctions and libel actions in pursuit of the people’s right to know about malfeasance in government and powerful institutions. Abrams is an engaging-and refreshingly modest-storyteller whose lucid writing illustrates how landmark cases securing freedom of the press are often remarkable stories of the courage of reporters, editors and publishers-not to mention testaments to the legal skills of the constitutional lawyers advocating their causes. In explicating seven cases with a common thread of the recurring conflict between the free flow of information and society’s interests in national security, protecting reputation and personal privacy, Abrams manages to produce a page-turner filled with drama by transporting the reader behind the scenes of some of the most historic precedents in the First Amendment pantheon. At the vortex of key decisions Over his distinguished legal career, Abrams, a self-avowed “First Amendment voluptuary,” has been at the vortex of many of the Supreme Court’s most momentous free speech/free press decisions. From the Pentagon Papers case to the constitutionality of punishing truthful reporting about public officials in the course of their public duties, Abrams has championed the right of electronic and print media to be free from judicial censorship and governmental interference in newsgathering and reporting. A thoughtful, highly readable chronicle of his crusade that brings to life constitutional law, Speaking Freely is destined to become a classic of legal literature on the same shelf as Anthony Lewis’ Gideon’s Trumpet, Alan Dershowitz’s Reversal of Fortune and Irving Stone’s Clarence Darrow for the Defense. Speaking Freely demonstrates that a free press-enshrined in the First Amendment’s cryptic prohibition against government “abridging the freedom . . . of the press”-is not a given in our society. Constant vigilance and occasional great risks, Abrams urges, are essential to ensuring the people’s paramount right to know. After all, it is the First Amendment where the rubber meets the road in defining-and preserving-a democratic society. In achieving Thomas Jefferson’s goal of an informed citizenry as the best antidote to despotism, a free press serves as the means to “educate and inform the whole mass of the people.” Nowhere is the First Amendment’s antiseptic function more evident than in the 1971 case insightfully analyzed in the first two chapters. In U.S. v. New York Times, six justices rejected President Richard M. Nixon’s efforts to enjoin the publication of the top-secret Pentagon Papers revealing how the United States entered and prosecuted the Vietnam War. Reminding us of the reasons why a country goes to war, Abrams quotes U.S. District Judge Murray Gurfein, a Nixon appointee who refused to block publication: “The security of the Nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions.” Speaking Freely helps us understand why in an era of unprecedented governmental secrecy, the issues at stake in Miller’s case are profound for the protection of a free press. As Abrams convincingly establishes, confidential informers-whether whistleblowers or government officials like Mark Felt (Deep Throat)-are essential to exposing the truth about official misconduct, lies and cover-ups. If journalists’ promises not to betray their sources’ identities are not respected, all of us suffer. It is not difficult to find the moral here-especially at a time when more and more reporters are threatened with contempt for protecting sources. Every day of Miller’s incarceration is a defeat for an informed electorate as news organizations (like the Cleveland Plain Dealer) shrink from exposing official misconduct out of fear of bankrupting fines and punitive detention of reporters. Pierce O’Donnell, a partner and trial lawyer at O’Donnell Shaeffer Mortimer in Los Angeles, has represented journalists and news organizations. His most recent book, In Time of War: Hitler’s Terrorist Attack on America (The New Press 2005), has just been released.

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