Shield Law Controversy Entering A New Year

Dec 26, 2006

 It looks like 2007 will begin with journalists in many states facing the same legal threats from aggressive courts and zealous prosecutors who want them to reveal their confidential sources as they’ve faced in recent years, as the creation of a federal shield law to protect journalists and their sources seems no closer now than before.

For San Francisco freelance journalist Josh Wolf, 24, Christmas Day was his 126th day behind bars for refusing to testify before a grand jury and turn over video he shot in 2005 of protesters clashing with San Francisco police. If he stays in the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, CA, through February 6, 2007, he will have earned the dubious honor of having spent more days in jail than any other journalist in recent American history, including Judith Miller.

Also in the Bay Area, two Chronicle reporters are facing jail for refusing to reveal their source of secret grand jury testimony in the BALCO steroids investigation. In a Christmas weekend Editorial, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that in a show of solidarity 25 states’ attorneys general are challenging the federal government’s attempt to force Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada to reveal the sources. In early December the 25 states’ top lawyers filed a brief supporting the two reporters, saying that the issue a matter of states rights, not federal, and that the 32 states with journalist shield laws (including California) protect journalists from being forced to reveal sources, and that in 19 states (including California) the privilege “is absolute.”

The attorneys general also say that the Chronicle’s case is not about whether California can use the claim of federal jurisdiction to imprison two reporters, but that is about whether the federal government can disregard “constitutionally sound laws” in the 50 states.

Wolf has been in prison since August 1 for refusing to turn over outtakes of video that he shot during a San Francisco protest rally that turned violent in 2005. A police officer was injured and someone tried to burn a police vehicle. The incidents were regarded as federal crimes because the San Francisco Police Department receives federal funding, and prosecutors are using this fact to try to circumvent Wolf’s protection under the state law and pursue his video in federal courts.

Since his jailing, the National Press Photographers Association and other organizations that protect press freedoms have supported Wolf and continually call for his release. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said this week that they would support Wolf until he is free. “We’re very disappointed that efforts to free Josh have been unsuccessful,” said Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Dalglish’s group said that author and journalist Vanessa Leggett spent 168 days in a Texas prison in 2001. If Wolf – who has already been in jail longer than former New York Times reporter Judith Miller who was locked up for 85 days in 2005 – is still in jail on February 6 it will be his 169th day in federal prison. Wolf’s lawyers asked the court for a furlough from jail for the Christmas holidays, which was denied, and he also spent Thanksgiving behind bars.

In January 2006 the Joint Terrorism Task Force issued a subpoena ordering Wolf to testify before a federal grand jury about the demonstration and to turn over to them the unaired portions of his videotape. He refused both demands and was jailed for contempt of court on August 1. His lawyers appealed the order of contempt and he was granted bail August 31 pending a decision by a panel of appeals court judges in San Francisco. The panel affirmed the contempt order and Wolf returned to prison on September 22 and the full appeals court refused to review the decision.

In his Blog titled “The Revolution Will Be Televised,” Wolf wrote in a December 18, 2006, entry:

“Although my plight has garnered some attention from the media, some people have been left to wonder why the story has been neglected by much of the mainstream press. The simple answer is that I am the canary in the coal mine that they are afraid to acknowledge.

“Canaries were used in mine shafts to act as early warnings that the environment had become poisonous – if the bird dies then the miners knew they would be next if they didn’t do something to remedy the situation.

“As an independent journalist and videoblogger, I am more vulnerable than my corporate equivalent. As an individual who focuses on civil dissent, this is doubly so. By throwing me in jail and asserting my rights as part of the free and independent press guaranteed in the constitution, I should serve as a warning sign of things to come. It should trigger alarms to journalists far and wide; to some extent it has.”

A Web site called “Free Josh Wolf” has been established at http://www.joshwolf.net