LAS VEGAS — New York Times reporter Judith Miller defended her decision to go to jail to protect a source and told a journalism conference Tuesday that reporters need a federal shield law so that others won't face the same sanctions.
Miller was jailed 85 days for refusing to reveal the source who disclosed the identity of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame.
"Ultimately we protect sources so people will come forth -- so people will know," she told the national conference of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Miller received a standing ovation from more than half the crowd of about 350 journalists when she was presented with the group's First Amendment Award.
During a 12-minute speech, Miller defended her reporting and her decision to go to jail, saying she "could not risk a fishing expedition into all my intelligence sources."
"It is the freedom of people to talk to the press without getting in trouble, it is that right that's under assault today," she said.
Miller also participated in a panel discussion about whether reporters should be legally shielded from revealing confidential sources. The First Amendment does not protect reporters from grand jury subpoenas, the Supreme Court has ruled.
Panelist H. Josef Hebert, an Associated Press writer who was found in contempt of court for refusing to reveal a source in the espionage case of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, said reporters should carefully grant confidentiality and stick to the pledge once given.
Hebert said Washington sources frequently want to comment without being identified, but "the truth is, we have to use this privilege less and less."
On Wednesday, Miller is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of a federal shield law, said Bruce Sanford, a First Amendment lawyer and counsel for SPJ.
Miller became a focus of the discussion about shield laws while fighting a special prosecutor's attempts to compel her to tell a grand jury how the name of Plame was made public in July 2003.
Plame's name was exposed eight days after Plame's husband, Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson, published an opinion article in the Times saying the administration had manipulated prewar intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs to justify going to war.
Miller, 57, never wrote a story about Plame, but was jailed for contempt of court for refusing to testify about her confidential sources.
She was released Sept. 29 after saying Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, had released her from her obligation to keep his name secret.
Miller said in her speech she did not feel comfortable that she had been released from her pledge of confidentiality until she heard from Libby personally.
Miller has since testified twice before the grand jury and said in a first-person account in the Times last the weekend that in June and July of 2003 she discussed Wilson with Libby.
However, Miller said she could not remember who told her the name she wrote in her notebook as "Valerie Flame."
SPJ President Irwin Gratz, a radio producer for Maine Public Broadcasting in Portland, said 22 members of the society's board ratified the First Amendment Award on Saturday to recognize Miller's refusal to cooperate with prosecutors, her pursuit of the case to the Supreme Court and her willingness to go to jail.
"What she has done is shine a bright light on the need for a federal shield law," Gratz said.
One of Miller's colleagues at the Times said in a speech Tuesday to the New York City Bar Association that he didn't believe a shield law would necessarily have helped her case.
Reporter Adam Liptak said any privilege protecting the conversations journalists have with sources would likely be similar to the laws protecting the confidentiality of discussions between lawyers and their clients.
Those rules, he noted, are not protected if the client talks about participating in an illegal act, such as a government employee revealing the identity of a CIA agent.
In her speech, Miller dismissed criticism about her reporting and her case based on what she called "urban legends," "wild speculation" and "theories and rumors."
"I did not go to jail to protect wrongdoing. I did not go to jail to get a large book contract or to martyr myself," she said. "Anyone who thinks I would spend 85 days in jail as a canny career move knows nothing about jail and nothing about me."
Miller's appearance generated a range of comment.
"I was greatly reassured that she was acting in the best interest of journalists and the public," said Paul Simon, president of the Colorado professional chapter of SPJ and an editor at the Denver Post.
But Jason Jedlinski, 26, a producer with Fox News in Chicago, was looking for greater candor.
"She could have opened up a little more with a room full of colleagues," he said.
AP special correspondent Linda Deutsch, a longtime courts reporter in Los Angeles who also was to receive an SPJ award during the convention, said she fully supported Miller's defense of First Amendment principles.
"Anyone who goes to jail to protect my rights deserves my support," Deutsch said.