Chill the Press
A judge's harsh penalty could limit the public's right to know.

Monday, March 24, 2008

WITH A 20-page opinion handed down March 7, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton sent a shudder through journalists and their would-be sources. He found former USA Today reporter Toni Locy in contempt of court for not revealing the identities of people she talked to for a May 2003 story on the 2001 anthrax attacks and ordered her to pay the fine he had imposed -- as much as $45,000 -- out of her own pocket. Even worse, Judge Walton barred others from assisting Ms. Locy. A stay of the penalty pending an appeal was granted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on March 11. We hope it presages a move by the court to reverse Judge Walton's sweeping and unjustified order.

Ms. Locy was slapped with contempt of court on Feb. 19 for refusing to name her sources for stories about Steven J. Hatfill, an Army scientist who was named by then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft as a "person of interest" in the anthrax mailings. Mr. Hatfill filed a civil lawsuit against Mr. Ashcroft, the FBI and the Justice Department claiming that they violated his privacy rights. Ms. Locy revealed the names of two of her sources after they gave her permission to do so. Because she says she can't remember who told her specific information for her story, Ms. Locy has refused to disclose who else among her 10 regular sources she might have spoken to about Mr. Hatfill.

An irked Judge Walton wrote that "discerning the identity of the pertinent sources necessarily requires deposing all of them to eliminate those who did not implicate" Mr. Hatfill. This would force Ms. Locy to give up all of her sources, even those who had nothing to do with the anthrax investigation.

Judge Walton's opinion removes any protection that government news sources have come to rely on. If allowed to stand, it would seriously impair the ability of journalists not only to expose malfeasance and corruption but also to provide thorough coverage of institutions such as the Justice Department. Reporters rely on regular confidential sources to burrow into their beats; if they can be arbitrarily required to identify all their sources, it's likely they won't have any. Ms. Locy might not be in this predicament if the federal government had what 49 states and the District of Columbia have: protection of the relationship between reporters and their sources. A proposed federal shield law is stuck in the Senate. Maybe Ms. Locy's plight will finally spur senators to take action.

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