Earlier this week, the Citizen Media Law Project joined 28 of the country's leading news organizations, press associations, and nonprofits dedicated to preserving free speech rights in filing a brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit opposing the contempt citation issued against Toni Locy, a former reporter for USA Today. Locy, who wrote several articles back in 2003 about the FBI's investigation into the mailing of anthrax tainted letters, was one of five reporters Steven Hatfill subpoenaed while trying to uncover the anonymous government sources who had identified him as a "person of interest" in the investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks.
On March 7, 2008, U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton issued an order holding Locy in contempt for refusing to reveal her confidential sources, ordering her to pay fines of $500 a day for seven days, $1,000 a day for the following seven days, and $5,000 a day for the seven days after that if she refused to comply. Judge Walton then denied Locy's request for a stay pending appeal and ordered that all fines must come out of her own pocket.
Gannett Co., USA Today's parent company, filed a motion for an emergency stay of the contempt citation with the D.C. Circuit on March 10, and the coalition of media companies and nonprofit journalism organizations, including the CMLP, CNN, NBC, New York Times Company and RCFP, filed an amici curiae brief in support of Locy that same day.
So what prompted us to oppose the contempt order and ask the D.C. Circuit to issue a stay pending Locy's appeal?
- No judge has ever officially ordered that a reporter held in contempt may not accept reimbursement from his or her employer or anyone else. Locy risks personal bankruptcy simply for doing what she believes is right and what many journalists consider to be an essential part of their job: protecting confidential sources.
- Locy has stated in a deposition that she can't remember who her specific sources were, so the judge has ordered her to reveal the names of all of the confidential sources she routinely relied upon in the Justice Department.
- The fines, which rise to $5,000 a day, are punitive.
- This case highlights the need for a federal shield law. I've written several blog posts on this topic arguing that we need a shield law that protects all acts of journalism. The House passed a bill back in October 2007, but a similar bill has been languishing in the Senate ever since.
Yesterday, the D.C. Circuit granted a stay of Judge Walton's contempt order while Locy's lawyers appeal the contempt ruling. The case isn't over, but at least Locy doesn't face the prospect of personal bankruptcy as she exercises her right of appeal.
UPDATE: The Associated Press (via the First Amendment Center) reported today on the D.C. Circuit's decision to issue a stay.