Poet and political journalist André de Chénier (above) criticized the French Revolution, and paid the ultimate price: his head. By comparison, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller (below), who spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal a source, got off easy.
The Founding Fathers had good reason to enshrine the right to a free press in the Bill of Rights. After all, they themselves had risked prison or worse by distributing political pamphlets and writings against King George III.
But how free is it? Just ask Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who spent nearly three months in jail. She was held in contempt of court when she would not reveal her source for the leak about former CIA agent Valerie Plame. Indeed, in recent years, there have been several high-profile cases involving U.S. journalists threatened with subpoenas — not to mention those abroad who've landed on the wrong side of a jail cell.
Here, a look at noteworthy cases of journalists, past and present, who've had brushes with the law:
Perils of the Past
1735: In pre-revolutionary America, publisher and journalist John Peter Zenger is hauled before a court for libel. He opposed the policies of New York's royal governor, Sir William Cosby, and regularly published articles against Cosby. His acquittal is an important victory for supporters of freedom of the press.
1794: French poet and political journalist André de Chénier is arrested during the French Revolution for criticizing the new Republic. He faces a fate worse than jail: Madame Guillotine.
1819: British journalist Richard Carlile is sentenced to three years in jail and fined £1,500 for acts of blasphemy and sedition against the Church of England and the British government. He had published: Thomas Paine's pamphlets "The Rights of Man," "The Age of Reason" and "Common Sense," which found a fervent audience in America.
1881: Irish nationalist and journalist William O'Brien, the editor of the weekly paper The United Irishman, is arrested numerous times by the British government for promoting an independent Ireland.
Modern-Day Media Woes
2001: American author and freelance journalist Vanessa Leggett spends a record 168 days in a federal detention center in Houston for refusing to turn over research notes on a true-crime book that she is working on. She claims that she has a journalist's privilege of confidentiality toward her sources; federal prosecutors argue that Leggett is not a reporter and, thus, does not fall under the protection of the First Amendment.
2004: Chinese journalist Shi Tao is sentenced to 10 years in prison in China for allegedly supplying foreign-based Web sites with an internal Communist Party message.
2005: New York Times reporter Judith Miller spends 85 days in jail for refusing to testify in a grand jury investigation. The high-profile case sparks new debate about the extent to which the First Amendment protects journalists.
2006: San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada face possible jail time for refusing to name the source who revealed to them transcripts from a grand federal jury trial investigating Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative. BALCO's founder claimed that he provided well-known athletes such as Barry Bonds and Marion Jones with illegal performance-enhancing drugs.