Last week the California State Assembly and Senate unanimously asked Congress to pass a federal shield law to protect journalists from being forced to disclose unpublished material and the identity of a source.
Part of the motivation for the new push for federal legislation is the recent spate of federal attempts to imprison journalists who won't give up their confidential sources. The latest victim of that crackdown, Josh Wolf, is in federal confinement after refusing to give prosecutors outtakes from a video he shot of a demonstration at which a San Francisco police officer was injured and a taillight was broken on a cop car (see "The SFPD's Punt,” 8/23/06).
And while Congress is reviewing the case for protecting journalists, the Guardian has taken a hard look at the case against Josh Wolf — and it's looking more dubious every day.
For starters, the local cops and the federal prosecutors are trying to claim that Wolf isn't really a reporter.
That's what sources in the San Francisco Police Department and the US Attorney's Office tell us, and it's borne out by the way the feds are pressing their case in court. In legal briefs, the government never refers to Wolf as a journalist, only as a witness. One federal official, who spoke on the condition he not be identified, likened Wolf to a convenience store owner who has a security camera that catches criminal activity on tape.
There are all sorts of problems with this argument — the first being that the courts have never formally contested Wolf's journalistic credentials. In fact, the local prosecutors admit in legal briefs that they contacted Washington to seek permission to subpoena Wolf — a process that's required whenever journalists face this sort of legal action.
As Peter Scheer of the California First Amendment Coalition points out, "The Justice Department claims it complied with regulations that say you can't subpoena a journalist for outtakes without getting a special order from the attorney general."
Scheer also notes that under California law, even bloggers enjoy the reporter's privilege, as recently established when Apple Computer unsuccessfully tried to obtain the identities of sources who allegedly leaked business secrets to bloggers.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Virginia-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says that a case for Wolf qualifying as a journalist could be made under both the House and Senate versions of the Free Flow of Information Act, simply because Wolf was paid for broadcasting his video of the protest.
"In the Senate version, you have to be involved in journalism for money, make some part of your livelihood from it, while the House version is even broader," said Dalglish.
Watching the part of Wolf's video that he's made public, which is posted online at www.joshwolf.net and was aired without his consent by at least three major TV networks before he was eventually compensated, it's easy to speculate that the SFPD would not have delighted in the picture it paints of local law enforcement.
The footage of the July 8, 2005, protest begins peacefully with protesters, many of them wearing black ski masks, carrying banners saying "Anarchist Action," "War is the Symptom, Capitalism is the Disease," and "Destroy the War Machine." As night comes on, the mood sparkles, then darkens. Someone lights a firecracker, smoke rises, helmeted police arrive, newspaper boxes are turned over, a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. office is sprayed with paint, and suddenly a police officer is captured holding a protester in what appears to be a choking position, while someone shouts, "Police brutality! Your career is over, fajita boy!" and an officer warns, "Leave or you're going to get blasted. I'm a fed, motherfucker."
At the same demonstration, Officer Peter Shields was hit in the head while charging into a crowd of protesters — and nobody knows exactly who hit him.