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Leggett breaks record for longest jailing of journalist on contempt charge in U.S. history

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According to research by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, freelance book author Vanessa Leggett today becomes the…

According to research by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, freelance book author Vanessa Leggett today becomes the longest-jailed journalist in U.S. history for refusing to disclose a confidential source, as she serves her 47th day in jail.

In a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft delivered today, the Reporters Committee argued that the Justice Department should acknowledge that Leggett is a journalist and apply its news media subpoena guidelines to her, which would result in the subpoena being withdrawn, thereby dissolving the civil contempt charge against her and freeing her from jail.

“It is time for the Department of Justice to recognize that Houston author Vanessa Leggett is a journalist, should have been treated as such under the department’s own guidelines, and should be released from jail immediately. It should be clear by this point that Ms. Leggett is not defying the subpoena out of spite, but out of a genuine commitment to preserving the integrity and independence of the newsgathering process,” the Reporters Committee stated in the letter.

The letter noted that the federal appellate court that allowed Leggett to be kept in jail proposed a test for determining if she is a journalist, which Leggett could easily pass. The court did not actually rule on the issue because it found that even for journalists, there is no privilege not to testify before a grand jury.

The Justice Department guidelines for subpoenas of journalists require careful balancing of competing interests and narrowly tailored requests for a journalist’s testimony on a specific topic. The Reporters Committee argued that a sweeping subpoena for all records gathered in a four-year investigation does not come close to meeting those requirements, particularly in an open-ended grand jury investigation.

The Reporters Committee also said that the case “has already called into question this administration’s dedication to First Amendment principles,” noting that foreign editorialists are openly questioning the human rights leadership role of a country that sends journalists to jail for refusing to act as agents of law enforcement.

The current record for incarceration of a journalist is believed to have been set by a Los Angeles reporter almost 30 years ago. William Farr, then with the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, was jailed for 46 days in 1972 for refusing to reveal the source of leaked documents in the Charles Manson trial. There is no indication that the U.S. Department of Justice has ever had a reporter jailed for more than one day, prior to the Leggett case. Almost all other jailings of reporters, including the jailing of Farr, came at the request of county prosecutors.

The letter delivered to Ashcroft can be found at https://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/vlagltr.html . More background on the Leggett case can be found at https://www.rcfp.org/leggett.html.