Photo credit Steve Rhodes
By Michael Stoll
Member, SPJ's Northern California chapter
SAN FRANCISCO — Members of the Society of Professional Journalists joined an array of free-speech advocates on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall today to urge U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to help free Josh Wolf, the California freelance journalist who has been jailed for contempt of court longer than any journalist in American history.
"Whether you are a professional journalist or a citizen journalist, your First Amendment rights are the same," said Pueng Vongs, vice president of SPJ's Northern California chapter, during a press conference attended by about 60 people and covered by more than a dozen California reporters. "We are asking Speaker Nancy Pelosi to intervene to free Josh Wolf immediately on behalf of all journalists and the general public."
The chapter is drafting a letter to Pelosi that it plans to give Wolf's mother, who is scheduled to speak with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., this week. Pelosi has intervened to have charges dropped against two San Francisco Chronicle reporters, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada. The Chronicle reporters face 18 months in a federal prison for refusing to name their sources for stories about drug abuse by major league baseball players.
The chapter's letter to Pelosi states in part: "Speaker Pelosi, we implore you to use the influence of your office to bring an end to Mr. Wolf's incarceration, which advances no interest in justice and by its precedent, chills the public's ability to enjoy a vigorous, unfettered and informed democracy."
Wolf has served 169 days in a federal detention center in Dublin, Calif., after refusing to comply with a judge's order that he testify and turn over videotape outtakes of a 2005 San Francisco protest to a grand jury investigating the violent confrontation.
SPJ, one of the nation's largest and oldest journalism-advocacy organizations, has remained one of Wolf's ardent supporters. The Society helped cap Wolf's legal fees at $60,000 and has paid more than half of that cost — $31,000 — from its Legal Defense Fund.
In November, SPJ's Northern California chapter named Wolf one of its 2006 Journalists of the Year as part of its Excellence in Journalism Awards. The chapter followed up today by announcing another award for Wolf in the online free-speech category of the chapter's annual James Madison Freedom of Information Awards. The chapter honored Wolf for his continuing work behind bars on several Web sites dedicated to free-speech issues.
Vongs read a statement from the chapter: "Josh Wolf's historic incarceration symbolizes the threat that all journalists now face ... Mr. Wolf's sacrifice, and the sacrifice that other journalists will also make, ensures that the public will continue to receive information unfiltered by their government."
SPJ was joined at today's press conference by a broad coalition of groups and individuals, including the Newspaper Guild, ACLU, National Writers Union, The National Lawyers Guild, a San Francisco city supervisor and the publisher of a weekly newspaper. Sarah Olson, an independent radio reporter from neighboring Oakland, Calif., also spoke passionately about the need to free Wolf. Until last week, she had been under subpoena from the U.S. Army in the case of an alleged deserter who, in a radio interview, told Olson about his reasons for refusing deployment to Iraq.
"It is indeed, as people have been saying, a very dark day for journalism as Josh Wolf breaks the record for the number of days a journalist has been incarcerated for refusing to comply with a grand jury subpoena here in the United States," Olson said. "Josh is protecting each and every one of us as journalists, each and every one of us who wants to gather up and disseminate news and information free of government intervention. He is protecting us as citizens, in a country that has at its very core, its very foundation, a commitment to the right of information, the right of freedom of speech, and the right of citizens to speak to journalists without fear of harassment or intimidation."
Others said they suspect a political motive behind the simultaneous targeting of four journalists with subpoenas. San Francisco is home to many anti-war activities and is Pelosi's home district.
"Josh Wolf is not just a blogger," said Bruce Brugmann, publisher of the San Francisco Bay Guardian newspaper, which has argued that the Bush administration targeted San Francisco. "Josh Wolf is a First Amendment hero, he's a public citizen hero, he's a journalistic hero. That's why I'm glad we're all here today to start a movement to protect people like Josh Wolf the next time this kind of thing happens."
David Greene, one of the lawyers representing Wolf, also spoke.
"Josh Wolf is in jail for every one of you out there who is holding a camera," Greene told the assembled press corps. "For every one of you out there who is holding a pad of paper taking notes, Josh is in jail for you. For everyone holding a microphone, Josh is in jail for you. For every one of you out there who plans to read what the press hear, to read what they're writing, to view what the cameras are taking, to listen to the audio that's being recorded, Josh is doing this for you. ... Josh knows that if he is to give up, it will only embolden the government the next time a subpoena is issued. It will only be sending the message that journalists don't care. Well journalists do care, and that is what Josh is fighting for. He's fighting for the public's right to know. He's fighting for the press' right to be free."