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Federal court issues opinion upholding contempt citation against doctoral student

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
CALIFORNIA -- Four months after upholding a contempt citation against Rik Scarce -- a sociology doctoral student at Washington State…

CALIFORNIA — Four months after upholding a contempt citation against Rik Scarce — a sociology doctoral student at Washington State University jailed since May 14 for refusing to answer grand jury questions about the animal liberation movement — in mid- September the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) issued an opinion explaining its holding.

The appeals court’s opinion assumed for argument’s sake that scholars enjoy the same protection as do journalists for their sources and information. However, the court held that not even a journalist could assert Scarce’s claimed privilege.

The court held that in grand jury inquiries, courts may balance the interests of the press against the need for citizens to testify about criminal conduct only when the grand jury inquiry is not conducted in good faith; does not involve a legitimate need of law enforcement; or bears only a “remote and tenuous relationship to the subject of the investigation.”

Absent such an abuse of the grand jury function, the appeals court held, the press has no special First Amendment privilege.

The appeals court also rejected Scarce’s claim that federal common law provides a reporter’s privilege. It further observed that no court had recognized a distinct scholar’s privilege to withhold confidential information sought in good faith and relevant to a legitimate grand jury inquiry.

The court thus concluded that the district court correctly held Scarce in contempt. (Scarce v. U.S.; Counsel: Jeffry Finer, Spokane, Wash.)