The Supreme Court yesterday let stand out order that a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter be jailed for refusing to answer questions about her source for a story about the Abscam undercover operation.
However, Jan Schaffer, the reporter, may avoid serving the six-month contempt of court sentence imposed on her because the answer she refused to provide may have become irrelevant.
Lawyers for two Philadelphia City Council members asked the questions of Schaffer in an effort to have charges dismissed on ground of prejudicial news leaks. Convictions of the councilmen were later thrown out after U.S. District Court Judge John P. Fullman held that they had been entrapped by the FBI undercover operation.
If Fullman's finding survives a government appeal, it is unlikely that the lawyers will press the contempt of court finding against Schaffer. Richard Sprague, one of the defense lawyers, said the Schafer jail sentence is "on ice" as far as he is concerned until the appeal is resolved.
The questions concerned Schaffer's conversatins with Philadelphia U.S. Attorney Peter Vaira Jr., who has already admitted leaking Abscam information to the Inquirer reporter and has been censured by the Justice Department for doing so.
Fullam cited Schaffer for contempt for her refused to discuss under oath the conversation with Vaira. Inquirer lawyers contested the citation on the grounds that it violated First Amendment free press guarantees. But a reporter's privilege to remain silent to protect sources is not guaranteed under prior Supreme Court rulings, and an appeals court upheld the contempt finding.
In other action yesterday:
The justices agreed to review restrictions placed on distribution of literature by Krishna cultists at the Minnesota State Fair. The Krishna group, whose presence at airports and other public places has produced much irritation and many, generally unsuccessful attempts to stop it, challenged a Minnesota requirement that all state fair solicitors rent booths and confine their activities to the booths.
Minnesota lawyers argued that the restriction did not breach constitutional protections of religious freedom or free speech because it did not bar the Krishnas entirely from espousing their religious views at the fair. The Krishnas got an appeals court to overturn the restriction, however, saying that it kept them from practicing "Sankirtan," a religious requirement that they sell and disseminate their literature. The justices will hear the state's challenge to the lower court in Heffron vs. Krishna Consciousness, et al.
The court refused to review a lower court ruling upholding a lumber yard's firing of a Mexican-American employe for speaking Spanish on the job. The employer, Gloor Lumber and Supply Inc., of Brownsville, Tex., had a rule that only English must be spoken on the job unless Spanish was needed to talk to a customer. Hector Garcia lost his job for a conversation with a fellow employe. Though the firing was challenged by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal appeals court ruled (Garcia vs. Gloor) that the English-only policy was a bona fide occupational requirement.
The court will consider (Rowan Co. vs. U.S.) whether an offshore drilling company must pay Social Security and unemployment compensation taxes on the room and board given workers while they live on the drilling rig. Rowan Co. challenged the Internal Revenue Service requirement that taxes be paid on such benefits, arguing that they are not wages but a business convenience.
The court refused to consider the firing of Madge Wallin, the former librarian of Port Townsend, Wash. Wallin was fired by the town's library board after resisting an order requiring her to wed old books out of the 25,000-volume building. She asked for Supreme Court review because she said she had not received a hearing to challenge her dismissal and because she believed her firing stemmed from a vendetta against her in the town, where she often protested discisions of the city fathers.