Jun. 4, 2008  

SPJ: Judge’s Order Shows Need for Shield Law

Leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists say a federal judge’s order to force Washington Times National Security Reporter William Gertz to testify before grand jury further illustrates the need for a federal shield law.

On Friday, Judge Cormac J. Carney of the Central District of California subpoenaed Gertz to testify before a federal grand jury on June 13 regarding his sources from a 2006 story about the prosecution of a Chinese spy ring in California. The article in question discussed expected charges against an engineer who worked for American defense contractors, Chi Mak and his family. Gertz attributed his sources to senior Justice Department officials.

“The federal government aided by the judiciary is attempting to use William Gertz as an additional arm of law enforcement and then threatening him with jail time if he doesn’t comply with their orders,” said SPJ President Clint Brewer. “This issue is the latest proof that journalists need a federal shield law to ensure they will not be jailed by the government for doing their jobs and being watchdogs of the federal government.”

According to a May 30 New York Sun story, Gertz’s subpoena follows the investigation of a leak ordered by Judge Carney in response to a motion by Chi Mak’s wife, Rebecca Chiu, who was also a defendant in the case. The story quotes Judge Carney’s May 1 order, which states: “The Court finds it necessary to subpoena Mr. Gertz to testify regarding the identity of the source that provided him with the grand jury information.”

Gertz’s subpoena follows that of former USA Today reporter Toni Locy, who was held 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 judge in that case imposed an escalating fine that starts at $500 and goes up to $5,000 for every day Locy refuses to comply. Those fines have been stayed while Locy awaits a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

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

“To further support efforts to pass federal shield bill, SPJ leaders are encouraging Society members and public citizens to contact members of Congress,” Brewer said. “By letting them know that a free press is vital to the livelihood of our nation, we’ll be one step closer to enacting this important legislation that will further the public’s right to know.”

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