Grand jury testimony from a 1942 Espionage Act investigation of the Chicago Tribune will be unsealed after a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled in favor of an effort for access to the information led by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“We are extremely pleased that the district court has ordered the release of the grand jury testimony from the 1942 Espionage Act investigation of the Chicago Tribune,” said Reporters Committee Litigation Director Katie Townsend. “We agree with Judge Castillo’s conclusions that disclosing these transcripts will not only result in a more complete public record of this historic event, but will also help build continued confidence in our government by affirming that it is open to scrutiny by the people.”
Naval historian Elliot Carlson sought the grand jury documents in conjunction with a book he is writing about the investigation, which stemmed from a June 1942 article by a Tribune correspondent aboard a Navy ship in the Pacific. Reporter Stanley Johnston’s dispatch about the battle of Midway included news that the Navy knew the Japanese would attack from the sea – revealing highly classified information that the U.S. had broken the Japanese code. The Justice Department investigated whether publication of the leaked information violated the Espionage Act, but the grand jury declined to issue an indictment.
Carlson tried both informal queries and Freedom of Information Act requests for the grand jury testimony, but he was unsuccessful. The subsequent petition to the court by the Reporters Committee was joined by a coalition of historical organizations – the American Historical Association, National Security Archive, Naval Historical Foundation, Naval Institute Press, Organization of American Historians and Society for Military History.
Chief Judge Rubén Castillo weighed several factors in deciding for release, including the fact that the government, even though it opposed release, “has not identified any specific reason that releasing the grand jury transcripts will threaten national security or otherwise cause harm.” The judge also found a significant and ongoing public interest in the case, as well as implications for broader principles involving “the relationship between the government and the press in a democratic society, particularly as to matters impacting national security.”
The case is part of ongoing efforts by the Reporters Committee to take a more active role in litigating First Amendment cases. For more about this case and similar activity, visit the Reporters Committee litigation page.
About the Reporters Committee
Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.
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