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Q&A with Vanessa Leggett

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From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 26.

From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 26.

Vanessa Leggett is allowed only a brief amount of time on the telephone each month, according to her attorney, Mike DeGeurin. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent written questions to Leggett through DeGeurin, who reviewed her written responses before forwarding them to the Reporters Committee. This is the text of those responses.

Q: Describe your days in jail. How are you being treated?

A: I spend most of my time alone reading or writing in my cell, which I share with another woman who works during the day. Most of the inmates here were convicted of some type of smuggling offense — illegal aliens, drugs, money — or committing various forms of mail or bank fraud. As to how I’ve been treated, I’m treated like the rest of the inmates: like a criminal and a potential escapee. Even though I haven’t been charged with a crime. Ever.

Q: How are you dealing with the passing of time?

A: It’s been difficult dealing with the passing of time. Unlike other inmates who know precisely how long they’ll serve and are counting down the days, I have no idea whether I’ll leave here today, next week, or over a year from now. It’s common to lose track of what day of the week it is in an institutional environment where there’s no sunrise or sunset and the lights never go out.

Q: How are you keeping your hopes up?

A: Although I don’t expect to be freed anytime soon, I face each stage of the appellate process with optimism, trusting that the courts will step in to protect the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.

Q: How did you make the decision not to comply with the federal subpoena? Was it a decision that required soul-searching, or did you know immediately that you wouldn’t comply?

A: When I was first served with the subpoena, I knew deep down that the right thing to do was to protect my sources even if that meant going to jail. The question was whether I was prepared to do that given the circumstances. From the time I was served the subpoena and threatened with a search warrant and incarceration, the federal government’s position was that — one way or another — they were going to get my information. But when it seemed that in the worst-case scenario the government could not hold me for longer than 18 months and that at the end of that term I could emerge from jail with my sources’ confidence and journalistic freedom intact, surrendering to the government’s demands did not seem so inevitable.

Q: Why did you think it was important to take this kind of stand?

A: I think the position I’ve taken is important now more than ever. In these unstable times, Americans realize how precious our freedom is. Our founding fathers recognized that the life blood of any democracy is the free expression of ideas, which is the bedrock of the First Amendment. Traditionally, courts have acknowledged this, but competing interests between the public’s interest in effective law enforcement and free speech have caused confusion among the courts.

Unfortunately, since the splintered Branzburg v. Hayes Supreme Court decision nearly 30 years ago, the door has slowly been closing on the free flow of information to the public through the press. While the time is ripe for a more definitive ruling, it’s unclear whether my case will be the one the Supreme Court puts to the test. What is clear to me at least is that I could not comply with the subpoena and watch the door to the public’s right to a free press close another inch.

Q: Do you have any regrets? If you knew this summer what the outcome of your decision would be, would you still decide not to turn over the material?

A: I don’t have any regrets about my decision, nor would my decision have been affected by the outcome of my case.

Q: Do you think you would have been treated differently if you had been a reporter for a mainstream newspaper?

A: Absolutely. In fact, had I been affiliated with a major news organization, I don’t think the government would’ve subpoenaed me at all.

Q: How will this affect your reporting for future books? Will you be less inclined to interview potential targets of federal investigation?

A: I don’t think my ordeal will cause me to shy away from interviewing potential targets of any police investigation, provided it’s a story I feel compelled to write about. The threat of government intervention should never determine if or how a reporter investigates a story.

Q: Will your case have a chilling effect on other writers and journalists?

A: So far, I don’t believe my case has had a chilling effect on journalism and I hope in the end it furthers free speech in America.

Q: What advice do you have for other authors and newsgatherers?

A: My advice to other news gatherers is to be informed of the laws governing your area of research (visit the RCFP web site to keep current!) and within those legal parameters trust your professional instincts as to how you gather your information. Most importantly, research actively. Don’t over rely on police sources and take as gospel whatever they choose to tell you. Check it out for yourself before passing it onto your readers.