The first week of school for many student journalists is also a time for serious concern about the state of press freedom for the non-student media. As of Sept. 5 freelance book author Vanessa Leggett had been held in jail longer than any other journalist in U.S. history for refusing to violate her ethical principles and disclose a confidential source.
The jailing leaves the United States as one of only two countries that currently hold a writer in jail for work-product related reasons, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The other country is Cuba.
Leggett has been in federal custody in Houston since July 20 for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury and turn over four years of research materials, including the identity of sources that had spoken to her on the condition of anonymity, regarding a murder case in Houston she planned to write a book about. Sept. 5 marked Leggett’s 47th day in jail.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner reporter William Farr was jailed for 46 days in 1972 after he refuse to reveal the source of leaked documents in the Charles Manson trial.
What makes Leggett’s case all the more remarkable is that the source of the subpoena was the United States government, specifically the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the U.S. Department of Justice has never jailed a reporter for more than one day prior to the Leggett case.
In fact, the Justice Department’s own news media subpoena guidelines indicate such subpoenas should only be issued after a careful balancing of interests and when the material requested in the subpoena is narrowly tailored. But the Department refused to follow these guidelines in this case claiming that Leggett did not meet its definition of a journalist because she had not yet published her information, she did not make a living as a journalist and she did not yet have a book contract for publication. However, major news organizations led by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have maintained that Leggett clearly meets the criteria for who could be defined as a journalist. Among those joining the Reporters Committee in Leggett’s support are the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, ABC, CBS, NBC and the Student Press Law Center.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has not responded to demands that the Justice Department justify its actions or lift the subpoena and allow Leggett to go free. Media advocates have called into question the Bush administration’s dedication to First Amendment principles, noting that foreign editorialists are openly questioning the human rights leadership role of a country that sends journalists to jail for refusing to act as agents of law enforcement.
Leggett’s incarceration comes at the same time the Justice Department has revealed that in May it subpoenaed the home telephone records of an Associated Press reporter hoping to discover an unnamed source he used in a story on government wrongdoing.
SPLC VIEW: We’re concerned any time a journalist is asked to serve as an investigate arm of the government. But this case is especially important to student journalists because of its focus on the government’s effort to define journalists in such a narrow way that most student reporters, editors and photographers would be excluded.
The Student Press Law Center encourages anyone concerned about an independent press to voice his or her concerns regarding Leggett’s incarceration to contact Attorney General John Ashcroft at:
U.S. Department of Justice\n950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW\nWashington, DC 20530-0001\nPhone: (202) 353-1555\nE-mail: AskDOJ@usdoj.gov