The real Josh Wolf story

The astonishing inaccuracies being reported about the young journalist's release

EDITORIAL The level of misunderstanding and utter inaccuracy in the reporting on the release of videographer and blogger Josh Wolf has been astonishing. Since Wolf was released from federal custody April 3, it seems as if everyone is taking a swipe at the 24-year-old, who set a record as the longest imprisoned journalist in American history.

The way much of the press covered the story, it would seem that Wolf gave up, abandoned his principles, and handed the government what it wanted; or he wasn't really a journalist; or what he had wasn't worth protecting.

But as Sarah Phelan reports ("Who Blinked?," page 15), those critics are all completely missing the point.

The facts: Wolf filmed an anarchist demonstration during which a San Francisco police car was slightly damaged and a cop was hit over the head. The San Francisco Police Department contacted the feds, who decided that since the city gets federal funding for police equipment, the damage to a taillight worth maybe $20 was enough to make this a federal case.

Wolf posted some clips from his footage on his Web site. Then a federal grand jury subpoenaed Wolf and demanded that he turn over all of the video — and that he come and testify about it under oath.

Wolf said from the start the video showed nothing that would be useful to the assault and vandalism investigations. He begged federal Judge William Alsup to look at the outtakes himself so that he could see the material was irrelevant. Alsup refused.

But the video was never the central issue. Wolf was in jail because he wouldn't appear in a secret proceding before a grand jury without a lawyer and answer any questions under oath that the prosecution might have about the demonstration. He might have been asked to identify participants, to talk about any private information they had given him — in effect, to become a government agent in the investigation.

As the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out in a brief supporting Wolf, the FBI has been investigating activists all over the country. Once the grand jury started asking Wolf questions, he could have been forced to aid those investigations.

After almost eight months, a mediator was able to come up with a compromise. Wolf posted the rest of the video on the Web and gave it to the feds; as he had said all along, it showed nothing relevant. More important, though, he was able to avoid becoming a witness for the prosecution. All he had to do was say under oath that he didn't know who hit the cop or damaged the car. Which he has been saying all along.

So this was in no way a capitulation to the authorities — and was by no means a moot issue. Wolf was standing firmly behind the journalistic principle that no reporter should become an agent of law enforcement. None of this was Wolf's fault — it was the fault of the local cops, the federal prosecutors, and the judge. Wolf's release after seven and a half months was a victory for free press and the First Amendment — and his incarceration ought to be strong grounds for Congress to pass a federal shield law. *