Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ president, 937/225-2323 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Christine Tatum, SPJ Legal Defense Fund chairwoman, at 312/222-5184 or email@example.com; after 5 p.m. and weekends: 312/255-0932; Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, 406/542-4400 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Jim Magill, SPJ Houston Pro Chapter, 713/939-5832, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists has awarded its single largest one-time Legal Defense Fund grant to help a free-lance author jailed for refusing to hand over unpublished material to the federal government.
The Society of Professional Journalists board of directors today approved a $12,500 grant to Vanessa Leggett, who has been jailed since July 20. Leggett was found in contempt for refusing to hand over her notes, research, tape recordings and interview transcripts to a federal grand jury investigating the 1997 murder of a Houston millionaire's wife.
The grant will pay half of Leggett's legal fees which her attorney, Mike DeGeurin of Houston, has capped at $25,000. The Society is challenging news organizations across the country to make up the difference, and already the Houston Chronicle has donated $1,000.
"This case moves in many different directions in terms of journalistic professional tangents, but the unsavory truth is that this woman is in jail without due process," said Tony Pederson, senior vice president and executive editor of the Houston Chronicle. "The government's handling of this case is reprehensible and really quite distressing. Any reasonable person would say that Vanessa Leggett should not be in jail, and the Houston Chronicle is glad to contribute to her defense."
SPJ President Ray Marcano said freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution should apply to all individuals, not simply to a full-time staff member of a print or broadcast media entity. Individuals should be free to gather and report without fear of becoming an arm of the government.
"Leggett's arrest and jailing smacks of gestapo tactics in a society in which journalists and other writers perform their duties without fear of government interference," said Marcano, an assistant managing editor at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. "She has been unjustly jailed because she doesn't want to hand over her unpublished materials. She also was jailed by an unnamed judge during a closed proceeding, ensuring no one knows how the judge concluded she should be jailed. She should be released immediately."
SPJ believes it is important to vigorously defend First Amendment rights for anyone engaged in the practice of gathering information for dissemination to the general public.
"I believe the federal judge in the Leggett case made a grievous error in ordering Ms. Leggett jailed for refusing to turn over her notes and tapes," said SPJ Houston Pro Chapter Secretary and President-Designate Jim Magill, a senior reporter for FT Energy and a writer for the Gas Daily newsletter. "At least it sends a chilling message to anyone who would presume to try to publish any material of a controversial nature that to do so would put them in danger of being thrown in jail."
The Leggett case is an important one for those working in newsrooms because the government sets a dangerous precedent when it takes steps to restrict any individual freedom. The next step may be to specifically restrict journalists' works or demand those works for the government's use.
"Any time a government entity tries to seize a writer's factual, raw materials, it's bad news. When it's the federal government doing the coercing, using a very big stick against an individual without much ability to fight back, it has implications for every journalist and aspiring journalist in the country," said Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information chairman. "In recent years, when state and local governments have tried to seize journalists' raw materials, we've seen them either drop their attempts or be beaten back in court.
"Our goal is to get Vanessa Leggett out of jail and help her defend her right to seek and disseminate information without the government making her an agent of investigation," added Marquand, special projects coordinator for KPAX-TV in Missoula, Mont.
Leggett was conducting the research and interviews to complete a book manuscript on the slaying of Doris Angleton, wife of former bookie Robert Angleton. Robert Angleton and his brother, Roger, were charged with capital murder in the case.
Before his trial in 1998, Roger Angleton committed suicide in the Harris County Jail, leaving behind a note claiming that he was solely responsible for his sister-in-law's slaying. Leggett interviewed Roger Angleton while he was in jail.
"The federal government is essentially ordering a writer to serve as an investigator and is using imprisonment to achieve its goal," said Christine Tatum, SPJ Legal Defense Fund chairwoman. "The Leggett case is an extreme example of the fishing expeditions lazy attorneys frequently embark on to get journalists and other individuals to do the attorneys' work. Had federal prosecutors been following this case as closely and for long as Vanessa Leggett has, they wouldn't need her assistance."
SPJ took an active role in the Leggett case late last month when it joined other media organizations in signing a friend-of-the-court legal brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The legal brief argues that the government's actions against Leggett threaten freedom of the press, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The prosecutors' actions against Leggett also run counter to the U.S. Department of Justice policy that requires federal prosecutors to seek approval from the U.S. Attorney General before arresting or issuing a subpoena to a reporter. Attorney General John Ashcroft reportedly did not authorize the subpoena issued to Leggett nor did he authorize her imprisonment.
"The Justice Department appears to be harking back to the Watergate era when harassment and intimidation of journalists by high-ranking government officials was condoned," said Robert Lystad, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel at Baker & Hostetler LLP in Washington, D.C. "Even with fundamental constitutional liberties at stake, the Justice Department apparently will not even heed its own regulations."
A copy of the friend-of-the-court brief can be found at http://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/leggett.html.
The Society’s Legal Defense Fund offers financial assistance to journalists in cases such as Leggett’s. LDF grants of more than $1,000 require the approval of the SPJ board of directors.
The Society of Professional Journalists strongly urges all First Amendment advocates to express their concern over the jailing of Vanessa Leggett. Contact information for registering complaints can be found below.
For information about the Legal Defense Fund or to apply for a grant, contact Christine Tatum at 312/658-3874 or email@example.com.