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For a while in recent weeks, an intense fever to search out and punish those who leaked Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had threatened to get out of hand. Fortunately, cooler heads have now prevailed.

A special Senate counsel investigating news leaks wanted reporters for Newsday, National Public Radio and The Washington Times to be forced to identify sources for stories on Hill's allegations. They also had sought to compel reporters to produce notes and other documents, and to force C&P Telephone Co. to produce records of reporters' home and office telephone calls.The chilling effect of such actions - had they been enforced - would have been enormous, pitting freedom of the press against the power of Congress. Neither would been a winner.

Reporters were justified to rely on the First Amendment's guarantee of press freedom in refusing to identify sources. Without that protection, no insiders with information important to the public would ever talk to reporters. Doors that might be opened to the public would be closed because of fear.

The fact that some senators have sought to discover "the leaks" that forced the Senate's hand and turned the Hill-Thomas hearings into a national spectacle is understandable. But aside from perhaps firing some Senate staffer, there is little to be gained at this late date from finding out who leaked the information.

In any case, the senators' anger was misguided. Instead of seeking to punish sources for disclosing information to the press, their concern should have been directed internally.

For example, what could and should have been done to address the issue in privacy instead of brushing it aside and then seeing the information come out in headlines?

Had the reporters been forced to disclose sources, a damaging message would have been sent to the American public, namely, that secrecy in the Senate is more valued than freedom of the press.