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Reporter held in contempt for refusing to name source

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         VIRGINIA         Confidentiality/Privilege         Jul 26, 2002    

Reporter held in contempt for refusing to name source

  • A federal magistrate judge in Virginia will decide Aug. 6 whether she will punish reporter Chris Dumond with jail time and a fine for refusing to reveal who showed him a sealed arrest warrant in a terrorism investigation.

A reporter for the Bristol Herald Courier in southwestern Virginia refused a federal magistrate judge’s order to reveal a confidential source during a July 22 hearing. The judge found reporter Chris Dumond in contempt of court and threatened him with a fine and jail time.

Federal Magistrate Judge Pamela Sargent in Abingdon, Va., ordered Dumond to tell her who showed him a sealed arrest warrant in June. When Dumond refused, the judge found the reporter in contempt and gave him until Aug. 6 to change his mind.

Sargent said she could jail him for 30 days and fine him up to $5,000. She also said she could send the case to a federal district court judge, where more extreme penalties could be imposed, said Dumond’s attorney, Craig Merritt.

Dumond, 23, has worked for the newspaper since December. He will continue to protect his source, Merritt said.

“He feels duty-bound to do that,” Merritt said.

Dumond saw the arrest warrant for Dr. Tajammul Bhatti, an American citizen and native of Pakistan who was jailed for a week in June as a material witness in a terrorism investigation. Dumond wrote about the case and reported that the newspaper had seen the sealed warrant.

The warrant did not charge Bhatti with a crime but indicated that the retired psychiatrist was a witness to events involving terrorism and the development of weapons of mass destruction, Dumond reported.

Sargent sealed all records in the case and issued a gag order preventing everyone involved in the case from talking about it. The judge is considering whether Bhatti and his attorney, Dennis Jones, violated the gag order, Merritt said.

Merritt argued that the First Amendment protected Dumond from forced disclosure of confidential sources. The court should try to get the information elsewhere before ordering a reporter to breach a promise of confidentiality, Merritt said.

“We just don’t think a reporter is a witness of first resort,” Merritt said in an interview after the hearing. “We think a reporter is a witness of last resort, and we think the law is clear on that.”

The magistrate judge told Merritt in court that she did not believe Dumond had a First Amendment right to keep his sources secret, the Herald Courier reported.

(United States v. Bhatti; Media counsel: Craig Merritt, Christian & Barton LLP, Richmond, Va.) MD

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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