24 states back Chronicle reporters facing jail over steroids story
- Sabin Russell, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, December 11, 2006
(12-11) 21:47 PST -- Twenty four states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, legal scholars and a slew of news organizations have filed court briefs in support of two Chronicle reporters facing jail for refusing to divulge who leaked to them transcripts of grand jury testimony in the investigation of steroids supplied to Major League Baseball players.
New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer filed the "friend of the court" brief Thursday at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It was also signed by his counterparts from the other states, including California Attorney General Bill Lockyer.
They argued that state laws protecting reporters in most instances from revealing their confidential sources could be rendered "meaningless" by a lesser federal standard. Before a federal court could require reporters to give up their sources, the states contend, it must show that "the public interest in disclosure outweighs the public interest in confidentiality.''
Reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada, Lance Williams and the Chronicle are appealing a decision by the U.S. District Court for Northern California, which held the pair in contempt of court for refusing to disclose how they obtained the grand jury transcripts. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White has sentenced them to up to 18 months in prison, but they remain free while the appeals court considers the case.
In a separate filing, 36 news organizations including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post; broadcasters NBC, CBS, ABC and NPR; and a variety of publishing companies, journalism organizations and industry trade groups also called on the appeals court to reverse the decision.
The signatories collectively argued that "the district court's decision will inhibit their ability to report upon matters of public concern.''
Citing a 1993 9th Circuit court case that cited the work of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, they wrote that "the investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle's reporters into steroid use by professional athletes involved many of the same methods used by Woodward and Bernstein to investigate the Watergate break-in. Both investigations revolved around federal grand jury probes into technically minor crimes that implicated misconduct with far broader significance to the public."
Journalism based on "so-called 'leaks' of information from confidential sources,'' they continued, "has produced some of the most important and celebrated news reporting in American history."
The news organizations said that the penalties imposed on Fainaru-Wada and Williams "vastly exceed any previously imposed on any American journalist for declining to identify a source, and represent a clear break from the historical consensus.''
A third brief was filed by six legal scholars with expertise in First Amendment law, who contended that it was the proper role for a federal court to assess independently the proper balance between freedom of the press and the obligation of all citizens to give relevant testimony. They argued that Judge White declined to strike such a balance, and in so doing, misread earlier court decisions that would have required him to do so. That mistake, the scholars said, is sufficient grounds to reverse the lower court ruling.