Jailing of Texas writer sets journalists on dangerous path

Saturday, August 11, 2001

The Justice Department’s insistence at prying at a chink in the armor of the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press sets a dangerous precedent.

The case in question involves Vanessa Leggett, a 33-year-old free-lance writer who has been jailed without bond in Houston since July 20 for contempt of court. Leggett, who has spent four years researching the 1997 murder of Texas socialite Doris Angleton, was found in contempt for refusing to turn over notes and research to a federal grand jury investigating the murder.

First, by way of explanation for those who may sympathize with the court’s decision, there is a very good reason why journalists guard their notes and research zealously and why (in most cases) courts respect that right: Without a guarantee of confidentiality of sources, journalists would be seriously hindered in their search for facts. The public’s trust in the press would be destroyed if there was a hint of collusion with law enforcement agencies. The press must not become, or even be viewed as, an arm of the government. The issue is not one of contempt for law enforcement or a desire to conceal crime, but of separation of press and state.

The Justice Department, and most federal courts, respect this basic guarantee of freedom under the First Amendment, and haven’t jailed a journalist who refused to divulge information since 1991. But erosion laps at the foundation of a free press like waves upon rocks at the seashore.

In this instance, the Justice Department has attempted to skirt the issue by declaring that Leggett is not a “legitimate journalist,” and therefore is not guaranteed protection under the First Amendment.

Although technically, Leggett hasn’t been published, is a free-lance writer, and does not work for a newspaper, if the Justice Department’s decision stands, it poses a future risk to every free-lancer, student reporter and book author, as noted by USA TODAY.

Who will be immune to requests by prosecutors that confidential records and notes be turned over? How long before this erosion of a free press spreads to the ranks of “legitimate” journalists?

And, based upon the Justice Department’s loose interpretation of that word, who is and is not a “legitimate” journalist? Is a free-lancer not legitimate, even if they have been published? Will the determination of legitimacy of a newspaper be based upon circulation size or frequency of publication? Is the editor of a weekly newspaper less legitimate than a reporter who works for a daily? Are the reporters and editors on the staff of The Washington Post less legitimate than those at The New York Times?

The questions don’t stop, and neither will erosion of a free press, if the Justice Department’s decision in the Vanessa Leggett case stands.

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