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SPJ leaders: Latest contempt ruling demonstrates need for federal shield law

For Immediate Release:

Clint Brewer, President, (615) 301-9229
Joe Skeel, Editor, (317) 927-8000, ext. 214

INDIANAPOLIS — Leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists say a federal judge’s ruling Tuesday to hold a former USA Today reporter in contempt of court further illustrates the dire need for a federal shield law.

Judge Reggie B. Walton found Toni Locy in contempt of court for refusing to name the confidential sources who shared information about former Army scientist Dr. Steven J. Hatfill — who was considered a person of interest in the 2001 anthrax attacks.

“The ability of journalists to promise their sources confidentiality, and have sources understand that that promise will be honored, is crucial to the process of reporting important information to the public,” said SPJ President Clint Brewer. “The Federal Media Shield Bill is a vital step for champions of the First Amendment and a free press to ensure that journalists will not be jailed by the government for doing their jobs.”

The judge declined to recognize any common law privilege that would have permitted Locy to shield her source’s identity. He then imposed an escalating fine that starts at $500 and goes up to $5,000 for every day Locy refuses to comply. Even more distressing is that the court is also considering Hatfill’s attorneys’ request to bar anyone, including her employer, from paying Locy’s fines or compensating her for her payments.

“It’s outrageous that a judge would want to fine a reporter up to $5,000 a day to give up information she can’t remember, that is available from other sources, and that doesn’t rise to the level of importance that is necessary for forceably revealing confidential sources,” said David Cuillier, SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee chairman. “This is a prime example for why Congress should approve a federal shield law. Useless witch hunts chill the flow of crucial public-interest information, which ultimately hurts democracy and American citizens.”

The U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of a federal shield law (H.R. 2102) in October. The Senate version (S. 2035) also passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in October and now awaits a floor vote.

“SPJ encourages its members and journalists everywhere to make known their feelings on the federal shield bill by calling their own members of Congress and letting them know as constituents that a free press is vital and important to our country,” Brewer added. “SPJ will also continue to support this effort on behalf of its members and journalists everywhere.”

SPJ, the nation’s most broad-based journalism-advocacy organization, has raised more than $30,000 since 2006 to support a campaign for the passage of a federal shield law.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists 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. For further information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.

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