What, free press?

She’s an unlikely heroine. A sloppy reporter, at best. A ill-intentioned warmonger at worst. The source for which Judith Miller went to jail can only be the worst of sleazeballs—a White House insider willing to risk the life of a CIA agent to make a political point.

But the principle at stake—freedom of the press and robust unfettered media—goes beyond party lines. When Miller of The New York Times was sent up last week, she made a stand for the last vestiges of First Amendment freedom. Miller’s jailing clarified the need for a national shield law to protect reporters from having to name anonymous sources.

To recap: Miller’s doing time for not turning over notes taken during talks with an anonymous source for a story she didn’t write—a piece that outed an undercover CIA agent in 2003.

A White House insider had strategically leaked the agent’s identity to a handful of reporters, including Miller, Matt Cooper at Time magazine and syndicated columnist Robert Novak.

Novak took the bait. He wrote a column noting, by name, that undercover CIA Agent Valerie Plame was married to former U.S. ambassador and Bush administration critic Joe Wilson. As the White House courted war in early 2003, Wilson went public with evidence showing that one facet of the “Iraq WMD” argument (that Iraq had bought uranium in Africa) was bullshit.

To punish Joe and cast aspersions on his motives, an “inside” source blew Plame’s cover, intimating that she set up Joe’s trip for the CIA. Plame’s lucky to be alive.

Mysteriously, column-writing Novak hasn’t been threatened with jail. Cooper and Miller were, however, ordered to testify. When they refused—on the grounds that protecting anonymous sources is a key ingredient to a free press—the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court opted not to hear the case.

To save Cooper, Time magazine caved—feel free to cancel your subscription—and turned over e-mails. Cooper had been talking to Karl “Bush’s Brain” Rove, no less. In e-mails to Time editors, Cooper wrote that Rove had implored the Time reporter to do a piece on Wilson’s wife and a purported conflict of interest.

Last week, Miller, whose own flawed pre-war reporting for The New York Times (unrelated to the Plame case) had contributed to the case for war in Iraq, went to jail. For protecting the likes of Rove, no less.

It’s been argued that reporters have no business protecting “inside” sources that obviously have questionable motives.

But ultimately, that’s the beauty of it. Freedom of speech and of the press seem best assured when proffered to the lowest common denominators. A free press is a free press—for unlovable Miller, for Watergate-busting Woodward and Bernstein, for Sean Hannity, for the RN&R.

A few words that bear repeating: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it?