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Branzburg v. Hayes

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Significance: The Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment did not provide journalists with a special testimonial privilege not enjoyed by other citizens.


Paul Branzburg, a reporter of a Louisville newspaper, wrote a series of articles about traffic in illegal drugs, using information from drug users who insisted on their anonymity. Subpoenaed by a grand jury, he refused to answer questions about his confidential sources. The Supreme Court consolidated the case with those of two other journalists who had refused to provide information to grand juries. By a 5-4 vote, the Court found that requiring their testimony was not an unconstitutional infringement on the freedom of the press. Justice Byron R. White's plurality opinion concluded that the public interest in law enforcement outweighed any incidental burden that journalists might have in obtaining confidential information. Throughout U.S. history, White wrote, the press had “operated without protection for press informants.” In response to the media's vehement opposition to the Branzburg decision, some twenty-six states enacted shield laws allowing reporters to refuse to divulge their sources in limited circumstances.