Supreme Right of Public
Thursday, May 13th, 1971
LOS ANGELES, May. 13 — Judge Charles Older faced considerable difficulties at the Manson trial, most of them caused by the defendants.
Charles Manson and his girls were rude, noisy and belligerent. At one point, Manson vaulted over the counsel table toward the judge, shouting “In the name of Christian justice, someone should cut your head off!”
Considering such personal provocations, it is commendable, if not surprising, that the judge should retain a sense of fair play toward the defendants and should worry about whether their right to a fair trial was threatened.
The judge thinks it was, and he blames the press. In the Manson trial and in other criminal cases, Judge Older believes that when the press exercises its freedom fully, the defendants’ right to a fair trial is abridged.
The problem is real, but we do not share the judge’s view that it should be resolved by court orders abridging freedom of the press.
Such orders might aid the defendants in one trial, but in another they might stifle investigative reporting that could demonstrate a defendant’s innocence. In other cases, they might prevent newsmen from revealing improper activities by judges or lawyers.
We think it fortunate, then, that California law protects the right of reporters and editors to shield sources of confidential information. That law has kept Judge Older from enforcing his belief that “the only publicity concerning a trial” should be a report of the charges together with the “things that come out in the public portion of the trial.”
In the case of one reporter, however, Judge Older thinks he sees a way around this law. The reporter is William Farr, who covered the trial for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. In October 1970 Farr reported that the Manson family had a plan to kill Frank Sinatra, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and other movie stars.
At the time, Judge Older called Farr into his chambers and demanded to know the source of the reporter’s information. Farr declined to tell him, and the judge did not press the point.
Later Farr went to work as press secretary for Dist. Atty. Joseph Busch. Since Farr is no longer a newspaper reporter, Judge Older reasons, he is no longer covered by the law allowing reporters to shield news sources. The judge has ordered Farr to come to court May 19 and disclose the source of his story under threat of being found guilty of contempt of court. That offense could lead to a jail sentence.
We hope Farr holds firm, and we hope the judge relents. The law was not written to protect Bill Farr or any other reporter, nor was it written to protect newspapers and radio and television stations. It was written to protect the public’s right to be informed. That right would be severely restricted if someone who could provide important information privately had to fear that his identity would be disclosed if a reporter changed jobs or if his employer went out of business.
A protection conditioned on a reporter’s staying in the same job would be too weak a protection to rely on.
Whatever reservations Judge Older may have about newspaper performance, he will surely see the truth of this. We hope he will conclude that in the public interest Farr is entitled to continue to protect the confidentiality of the news sources he had as a reporter.