News editors, Photo editors, Assignment desks
Al Cross, SPJ President, 502/875-5136 ext. 14 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Ian Marquand, SPJ FOI Committee chairman, (406) 542-4449 or email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS - Texas writer Vanessa Leggett has been jailed longer than any journalist in her efforts to protect her sources and the principle of a free and independent press, “Good Morning America” said today.
In a report that included interviews with Leggett, her attorney and her husband, ABC News recognized the support Leggett has received from supporters of freedom of information.
Supporters include the Legal Defense Fund of the Society of Professional Journalists, which is paying half of her legal fees. Her attorney, Mike DeGeurin, has capped his fees at $25,000. SPJ’s $12,500 commitment is the single largest grant ever from its Legal Defense Fund.
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 since July 20 - 139 days - for exercising her First Amendment rights.
DeGeurin said in a live interview that the Justice Department is trying to use Leggett “as their investigative arm, and that’s what’s so dangerous about it. The media has to be independent of the government. It can’t work for the government.” 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.
The government is on a fishing expedition, Leggett said in a taped interview.
“I have no idea what they desperately want, and I don’t think they do,” she said. “I’m fighting for the public’s right to a free and independent press, and to protect my sources.”
Leggett said she has never been tempted to give up her fight, and her husband, Doak Leggett, said he has never asked her to. “I'm in total support of her, over the concept of a free and independent press,” he said.
The report referred to Leggett as a “jailed journalist.” Labels are not important in this case, SPJ President Al Cross said today.
“While some may say Vanessa is an aspiring author rather than a journalist, that doesn’t really matter,” said Cross, a political writer and columnist at The Courier-Journal in Louisville. “We are supporting her because the First Amendment is supposed to protect everyone, and she is engaged in a legitimate exercise of her journalistic rights - gathering information for dissemination to the public.”
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.
“I’m heartened that a program with the visibility of ‘Good Morning America’ has brought Vanessa’s story to a wider audience,” said Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman and special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network. “We in the media must take the initiative to explain to the public why her case is important and why the principles she cites are worth defending. If we don’t do that, who will?”
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.