Former USA Today reporter and current WVU faculty member Toni Locy is filing an emergency appeal of a federal judge's order fining her thousands of dollars a day out of her own pocket for refusing to name her confidential sources. The paper quotes the Pittsburgh area resident as saying she can't afford the unprecedented fine. "I don't have $46,000 lying around. …Can he freeze my bank accounts? Can he take my house?"
Locy is scheduled to speak at the SPJ Regional Conference "Digital Democracy" here in Pittsburgh this weekend.
The USA Today editorial headlined "Judge forces reporter to pick between sources, bankruptcy" says Judge "Walton refused to give Locy time to appeal. That, too, is unusual. Locy's crime? Keeping her word to sources so that readers could learn what those sources only dared disclose privately." USA Today's coverage is here and here.
Locy was the target of a contempt-of-court request by lawyers for Dr. Steven Hatfill for her refusal to identify sources who provided information to her about the 2001 anthrax attacks and the subsequent investigation. Hatfill was publicly identified by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft as a "person of interest" in the investigation. Hatfill is suing the Department of Justice for violating his Privacy Act rights by leaking information about him to reporters.
The AP reports that "Locy's brief says Walton is imposing "destructive financial penalties upon a reporter who has — in complete good faith — invoked a constitutional privilege not to testify so that she can secure appellate review of her unique situation."
Journalism organizations are speaking out in support of Locy, including the Society of Professional Journalists and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which notes:
• "No judge has ever officially ordered that a reporter held in contempt may not accept reimbursement from an employer (or anyone else.)"
• "The fine (up to $5,000 a day) is punitive. If the judge wants to punish Ms. Locy, he should try her for criminal contempt and let a jury find that she willfully, intentionally and criminally forgot who her sources were for these stories."
As the Wall Street Journal's law blog notes, "starting at midnight [Tuesday], Locy is ordered to pay the fines — herself — until she appears before the judge on April 3."
American Journalism Review writes:
Journalists and press advocates said they were riled and shocked by what they regard as the judge's heavy hand. "If this judge's decision stands, it means that reporters are going to have to have insurance," says Kathy Kiely, a friend and former colleague of Locy's and a USA Today reporter. "If people think that they're going to be faced with financial ruin for doing their job, it's going to be really hard for anyone to be a reporter anymore. This raises some very, very serious long-term implications for our business and our profession."