Contemputf8g Wolf

Police Commission revives discussion of why the cops federalized an investigation that denied a journalist's rights

Months after local videographer and blogger Josh Wolf was released from federal prison — where his seven-month stay was the longest in history for an American journalist for refusing to turn over unpublished materials to criminal prosecutors — the San Francisco Police Commission finally has decided to analyze the incident. That inquiry comes just as Wolf embarks on a campaign for mayor, which he hopes will create a dialogue about the lack of police accountability and the overzealous federal intrusions that marked his story.

Wolf, 24, told the Guardian that he's still baffled by what transpired after he filmed the July 8, 2005, anti-G8 protest, which involved a heavy anarchist turnout, "got rowdier than local officials would have liked," and left a San Francisco police officer with a fractured skull — an incident that Wolf calls "unfortunate" but of which he claims to have absolutely no knowledge

"I've read the evidence that was presented in my case, but to this day no one has pointed out anything that constitutes terrorism," Wolf said.

The day after the protest, Wolf was contacted at his home by members of the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, along with two San Francisco Police Department officers. The four agents who showed up Wolf's door, one of them dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, demanded that he hand over all his video outtakes after local and national TV stations aired edited footage that Wolf posted on his blog. The aired film included scenes of anarchists setting off firecrackers, turning over newspaper racks, and spray-painting a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. office. It also showed an SFPD officer holding local resident Gabe Meyers in a choke hold while another agent waved his weapon at the crowd and shouted, "Leave or you're going to get blasted. I'm a fed, motherfucker."

"If any time the SFPD decides it doesn't want to deal with some local issue, does it have the autonomy to contact the feds, and if so, doesn't that jeopardize all the laws that the voters of San Francisco have passed?" Wolf asked July 11 as the Police Commission discussed a resolution supporting the First Amendment rights of the "new media," which is how Web-based disseminators of news, such as Wolf, are being described.

Earlier this year, police commissioner David Campos tried to pass a resolution in support of the then-jailed Wolf, but the proposal got no traction until Theresa Sparks was elected as president in May. By then Wolf had been free from jail for a month, leading Campos and Sparks to shift their focus toward investigating exactly why Wolf's case got federalized in the first place as well as the implications for other groups that are protected locally but at risk federally.

As Campos told the commission, "A lot of people in San Francisco have been talking about how we as a department interact with the feds, to the extent that it has an impact on medical cannabis providers and immigrants and on First Amendment rights, as in the case of Josh Wolf."

Under state law, reporters' sources and their work products are protected. A recent case involving Apple suggests that the law also extends to bloggers and independent reporters. But under federal law, reporters have no such protections, which is why former New York Times journalist Judith Miller was jailed in the Valerie Plame–CIA investigation and San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada faced potential jail time in the BALCO affair, as did freelancer Sara Olsen in the court-martial of Army Lt. Ehren Watada.

But while these journalists refused to comply with subpoenas that were clearly related to federal matters, there was no such obvious connection in Wolf's case.