Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee co-chairman, (406) 542-4449 or email@example.com
Christine Tatum, SPJ Legal Defense Fund chairwoman, 312/222-5184 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel, 202/861-1660 or email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists and three other journalism groups pushed harder in court today for the release of jailed Texas writer Vanessa Leggett.
Leggett is asking that she be released on bond while she appeals a contempt citation for refusing to turn over her notes, research, tapes and transcripts to a federal grand jury investigating the 1997 murder of a Houston millionaire’s wife. Leggett has been jailed for 111 days for exercising her First Amendment rights.
SPJ, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Radio-Television News Directors Association joined in a friend-of-the-court legal brief written by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The organizations argue that Leggett meets the requirements of the reporter’s privilege as established by three federal appellate courts and should be released – just as jailed journalists who have appealed contempt citations.
“I fail to see what the authorities are accomplishing here, other than creating a new First Amendment heroine. Worse, they may be creating a new cause celebre for all manner of anti-government zealots,” said Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee co-chairman and special projects coordinator for KPAX-TV in Missoula, Mont. “Vanessa Leggett should have been released from jail a long time ago. The fact that we still have to fight for something as basic as bail for Ms. Leggett shows how outrageous this prolonged persecution has become.”
SPJ has been actively involved in the Leggett case since August, arguing that individuals who are engaged in the practice of gathering information for dissemination to the general public should be free to gather and report without fear of becoming an arm of the government. SPJ also gave Leggett a $12,500 grant from its Legal Defense Fund to cover half her legal fees, capped at $25,000 by attorney Mike DeGeurin.
“It is appalling that federal judges, prosecutors and law enforcement agents continue to hound Vanessa Leggett for information that they could have gotten themselves had they been the diligent investigators she apparently is,” said Christine Tatum, SPJ Legal Defense Fund chairwoman and a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. “More Americans need to pay attention to the unfair and ridiculously harsh treatment to which this woman is being subjected. The Leggett case is a fine example of the extremes to which the government will go to protect its public image.”
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.
When Leggett refused to turn over the research on this high-profile case, a federal judge found her in contempt.
SPJ believes 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 First Amendment freedom. The next step may be to specifically restrict journalists’ works or demand those works for the government’s use.
“The injustices against Vanessa Leggett continue to pile up,” said Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel at Baker & Hostetler in Washington, D.C. “Not only is she serving the longest sentence in recent memory, she has been forced to carry on her appeal from behind bars.”
To download a copy of the friend-of-the-court brief filed on Leggett’s behalf, log on to www.spj.org/briefs/110801.pdf.
The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.