District Judge Takes Dead Aim at Independent Journalism and the First Amendment

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His method: Driving a reporter into personal bankruptcy for refusing to divulge sources.

The AP reports :

A judge is trying to bankrupt an ex-reporter with daily fines as much as $5,000 for refusing to disclose her sources for stories about the 2001 anthrax attacks, press advocates said Saturday.

They also said the case involving Toni Locy shows why Congress should pass a federal shield law for reporters.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton on Friday denied a request from Locy to stay payment of fines for a contempt citation pending an appeal and ruled she must "personally bear the responsibility of paying the fine the court imposed."

While at USA Today, Locy wrote about a former Army scientist, Steven J. Hatfill, whom the Justice Department identified in 2002 as a "person of interest" in the anthrax attacks. They killed five and sickened 17 others weeks after the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001.

Hatfill has denied any involvement in the anthrax attacks and sued the government for violating his privacy by discussing the investigation with reporters. No one was charged in the attacks.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, said Walton appears to be trying to bankrupt Locy, a former Associated Press reporter who now is a professor at West Virginia University's journalism school.

"What he's doing is essentially saying, 'Toni Locy I am going to destroy your life'" she said. "This is just plain crazy. I know you're not supposed to call a federal judge arrogant, but this is arrogant."

The judge pointed to statements Hatfill's lawyers made in court papers in explaining his rationale. Hatfill's legal team said that while Locy's reporting was conducted "within the scope of her employment for USA Today, her contempt was not. It began long after she left the employment of USA Today."

Starting at midnight Tuesday, Locy was ordered to pay fines of $500 a day for the first week, $1,000 a day for the second week and $5,000 thereafter until she appears before the judge April 3.


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This page contains a single entry by Phil Leggiere published on March 10, 2008 1:32 AM.

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