WASHINGTON, DC - The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has issued a stay and suspended a lower court order that would have required former USA Today reporter Toni Locy to pay thousands of dollars in daily fines and be in contempt of court for failing to identify sources.
The sources were from stories Locy wrote five years ago after a former U.S. Army bioweapons scientist was named as a "person of interest" in the government's investigation of a series of anthrax attacks in 2001. The scientist, Steven Hatfill, has filed a federal privacy lawsuit against the government and in the course of that trial Locy has refused to name her confidential sources.
Last weekend a federal judge issued a decision that could bankrupt Locy, who is now a university journalism professor in West Virginia. U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton ordered her to personally pay fines up to $5,000 per day until her next court appearance in April, and prohibited her former newspaper employer, or anyone, from reimbursing her.
Today's move by the Federal appeals court to block the contempt fine against Locy means that monetary sanctions against her are not piling up while she pursues an appeal in the district court's decision.
Hatfill contends in his federal suit that the FBI and the Department of Justice violated federal privacy laws by providing information about the investigation and about him to journalists. Former CBS reporter James Stewart was also named in Hatfill's suit, and Stewart an Locy have both refused to comply with court orders to reveal their sources - but judge Walton has taken no action against Stewart.
The news about Locy comes on the same day that more than 50 media companies, including the National Press Photographers Association, delivered letters to Senate leaders on Capitol Hill urging them to quickly pass the Free Flow of Information Act, a federal shield law that would protect journalists and prevent courts from using draconian fines or the threat of prison as weapons against journalists who will not name sources.
Locy's circumstances are a clear illustration of the urgent need for a federal media shield law. The Free Flow of Information Act (S. 2035) will protect confidential sources by establishing a uniform standard for obtaining information from reporters in federal court proceedings. Both versions of the legislation have been amended to ensure that national security also is protected.
"I'm relieved and thankful that the Court of Appeals has found that my legal arguments are worthy of its consideration," Locy told USA Today this afternoon.
Almost 30 news organizations joined in today's appeal to stay the fines against Locy, saying in a court filing that the fines imposed by Walton could only be described as "ruinous."
Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have shield laws in force in state courts, and 17 other states have recognized a reporter's privilege as a result of judicial decisions. However, there is no uniform set of standards that applies in the federal courts. Thirty-five state attorneys general, including the District of Columbia, have pointed out to the Supreme Court that the lack of a clear standard of federal protection has undermined state laws.
Without a federal shield law, journalists like Locy run the risk of huge fines and lengthy jail time for refusing to name their confidential sources. In Locy's case she wasn't threatened with jail - yet - but the enormous fines would have bankrupt the reporter-turned-college professor in a matter of days.
Freelance journalist Josh Wolf set the record for jail time in 2007 when he spent more than 169 days in a federal prison in Dublin, CA, for refusing to comply with a grand jury subpoena ordering him to testify or turn over video outtakes that he shot of a demonstration that turned violent in San Francisco in 2005.
Wolf was released in March 2007 after more than seven months behind bars after reaching a deal with prosecutors, which included not having to testify before the grand jury if he turned over video outtakes and not having to identify people who appeared in his video.
Before Wolf, the honor of longest-jailed journalist was held by author Vanessa Leggett, who spent 168 days behind bars in the Federal Detention Center in Houston, TX, in 2001 for refusing to comply with a subpoena to turn over her notes, which included conversations with confidential sources, about a high-profile murder case she intended to write about. Leggett claimed a reporter’s privilege under the U.S. Constitution in court when ordered to produce her notes and was found in contempt.
The only other serious contender for the jailhouse record in recent times was New York Times reporter Judy Miller – who spent only 85 days in jail for refusing to name a source in an investigation to determine who leaked the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame.