ATTENTION: News editors, Photo editors, Assignment desks
Al Cross, SPJ President, 502/875-5136 ext. 14 or email@example.com
Christine Tatum, SPJ LDF Committee chairwoman, 312/222-5184 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Ian Marquand, SPJ FOI Committee chairman, 406/542-4449 or email@example.com
Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel, 202/861-1660 or firstname.lastname@example.org
INDIANAPOLIS - Texas writer Vanessa Leggett - jailed longer than any journalist in recent memory for her efforts to protect sources - was released from prison today.
A federal grand jury’s investigation into the 1997 murder of a Houston millionaire’s wife ended today, allowing Leggett’s release. Leggett was jailed on July 20 - an unprecedented 168 days ago - for exercising her First Amendment Rights. The court denied Leggett’s repeated requests to be released on bond while appealing the contempt citation issued after she refused to hand over notes, research, tapes and transcripts to a federal jury investigating the case. Leggett plans to write a book about the murder and subsequent investigation. The Society of Professional Journalists provided $12,500 from its Legal Defense Fund - a record for a single grant - so she could press her case in court.
“We applaud the release of Vanessa, but still protest her imprisonment,” said SPJ President Al Cross, political writer and columnist for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. “Her case shows how First Amendment rights belong to everyone and why it’s dangerous for the government to get into the business of defining who is a journalist.”
SPJ has been actively involved in the Leggett case since August, arguing for individuals’ rights to gather information for dissemination to the general public without fear of becoming an arm of the government. SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund paid for half of Leggett’s legal fees, capped at $25,000 by her attorney, Mike DeGeurin.
“We shouldn’t have to celebrate an event such as this because Ms. Leggett’s imprisonment should never have happened in the first place,” said Christine Tatum, SPJ Legal Defense Fund chairwoman and a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. “The really sad thing is that the federal court in Texas is releasing Leggett not because it has finally come to its senses but because the law says it must: Leggett can’t be jailed if the grand jury is out of session. There is little noble about the court’s action today.”
Leggett has won supporters worldwide. In November, SPJ and two other journalism groups joined a friend-of-the-court legal brief filed on her behalf by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The organizations argued that Leggett met the requirements of the reporter’s privilege as established by three federal appellate courts and should have been released - just as other jailed journalists who have appealed contempt citations.
“This period has been probably one of the most difficult periods in my life,” Leggett said today at a press conference in Houston. “Being incarcerated is hard to describe just in a sentence, but I think it’s safe to say that we all enjoy our freedom. I’m extremely grateful to have my freedom again.”
The Leggett case has far-reaching implications for working journalists because the government sets a dangerous precedent when it takes steps to restrict any First Amendment freedom. The next step might be to specifically restrict journalists’ works or demand those works for the government’s use.
“Some may wonder why we’ve made such a fuss over Vanessa Leggett. It’s because all of us in this business are at risk. Veterans and beginners, free-lancers or staff writers in huge organizations,” said Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Chairman and special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network in Missoula, Mont. “Ms. Leggett’s case and other events of this past year show how vulnerable we all are to government heavy-handedness. We must continue to press the issue of privilege under the First Amendment.”
Leggett’s battle could be far from over. She faces the chances of being subpoenaed once again if a new grand jury convenes or a trial is conducted. Federal prosecutors also have the option of filing criminal contempt charges, which carry stiffer penalties.
Leggett’s attorney, Mike DeGeurin, on Monday filed a petition in the U.S. Supreme Court asking the justices to review her contempt-of-court case. DeGeurin argues in the petition - just as SPJ has - that Leggett is protected by journalists’ First Amendment rights because she was gathering information for public dissemination.
“Vanessa Leggett may be out of jail - for now - but the Justice Department officials who sent her there are still sitting at their desks with subpoena forms ready at hand,” said Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel at Baker & Hostetler in Washington, D.C. “The journalism world needs to keep the heat on the Department, or Leggett’s jail time will have been served in vain.”
Leggett was conducting the research and interviews to complete a book manuscript on the slaying of Doris Angleton, wife of reputed 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 confidential research on this high-profile case, a federal judge found her in contempt.
“Vanessa Leggett is a true champion for the First Amendment,” said SPJ Immediate Past President Ray Marcano. “She has sacrificed personal freedom in order to uphold a principle sacred to all Americans - that no one should be persecuted for refusing to bow to government pressure.”
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.