Miller right to commit civil disobedience

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 17, 2005

My family is famously proud of one of its ancestors &045; a teenage journeyman blacksmith who was at the Boston Tea Party.

I’ve thought a lot lately about Joshua Wyeth and his part in the most famous act of mass civil disobedience in our nation’s history.

I’ve wondered if any of his brash courage was passed down the family tree, and if I would have the same audacity and bravery if faced with the decision to defy a government order for the greater good.

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That’s because a much more famous and much more talented colleague, Judith Miller, is sitting in jail today, and most of America doesn’t really care.

Miller is a New York Times reporter forced to defend the First Amendment in a murky case: the grand jury investigation into who leaked the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame to the media. Miller refuses to reveal her source for a story she never even wrote, and for that the judge has sent her to jail.

It’s a hard case to get behind, even for a journalist.

It’s a crime to leak knowingly the name of a CIA agent &045; and the outing of Plame’s identity, which happened in a Robert Novak column, destroyed her covert operations and could have endangered her colleagues.

Some people have argued, then, that Miller is protecting a scoundrel.

On the surface, perhaps.

But what she is really trying to protect is the First Amendment and the right of the press to operate freely, without intervention by the government.

By refusing to obey the judge’s order to testify, Miller hasn’t said she’s above the law. In fact, she’s willingly gone to prison over it &045; for the greater good, for the trust that should exist between sources and reporters.

It’s a terrible test case. If Woodward and Bernstein had been called to testify about who Deep Throat was, it’s likely there would have been at least some public outcry if they were threatened with jail.

And Miller isn’t such a great tester. She’s been accused of shoddy reporting in the Iraq war.

Even anonymous sources themselves have had a bad rap lately. Just ask the folks at Newsweek.

But even in this situation, the principle of protecting anonymous sources is what’s at stake. They are essential to a free press, and to allowing that free press to investigate government.

This might be a bad example of protecting anonymous sources, but what’s now to stop a prosecutor from trying to out a &8220;good&8221; source, a whisteblower?

The Founding Fathers &045; some of whom participated in that famous act of civil disobedience in Boston Harbor &045; thought so much of a free press they put it in the First Amendment.

And that First Amendment doesn’t protect journalists &045; it protects the public. Because when journalists do their job right and do it well, we all benefit. Look at the Pentagon Papers. Look at Watergate. Look at Sept. 11.

The Democrat rarely relies on anonymous sources for a story, but we would if necessary, if it meant the only way to tell a story the public needs to hear, especially if it’s about our government.

And while I’ve never been burdened with the kind of information Judith Miller has taken to her jail cell, I’d like to think if I were, I’d be right there with her.

Joshua Wyeth, my ancestor, would have done nothing less.

Kerry Whipple

Bean is the editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3541 or by email at kerry.bean@