The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today urged Attorney General John Ashcroft not to issue another subpoena to Vanessa Leggett, the Texas book author who spent 168 days in jail on a civil contempt charge for refusing to comply with a federal subpoena demanding her confidential research.
The letter asked Ashcroft to acknowledge that Ms. Leggett is a journalist who qualifies for the protections afforded by the Department of Justice’s news media subpoena guidelines.
Those guidelines require that, before the Department can issue a subpoena to a journalist, it first must carefully balance the public’s interest in law enforcement with the public’s interest in a free press. The guidelines also require that subpoenas to journalists seek relevant, specific information that cannot be obtained elsewhere.
The Reporters Committee argued that the subpoena issued to Ms. Leggett last summer, which essentially demanded four years of her research into a Houston murder, was so broad that it could not have met the Department’s subpoena guidelines.
The letter noted the futility of issuing another subpoena to Ms. Leggett.
“Ms. Leggett spent 168 days in jail objecting to the demands of an onerous and overbroad subpoena. She has proven that she will not comply with such requests from federal prosecutors, not out of spite, but on principle — a principle on which she has been supported by a great number of media organizations,” the letter said.
“Further action on the part of your Department to force Ms. Leggett to divulge her confidential research would not only violate the Department’s guidelines, it would be pointless.”
Ms. Leggett was released from the Federal Detention Center in Houston on Jan. 4 when the grand jury before which she was ordered to testify completed its term. However, she could be subpoenaed to testify at trial if prosecutors obtain an indictment in the underlying criminal case, or she could be called before another grand jury.
The letter can be viewed at: https://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20020114Leggett.html