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Oct

5

Jailed Videoblogger Case Tests First Amendment

Posted by Tish Grier

Tom Abate points to coverage in the Online Journalism Review of the case against freelance journalist an blogger Josh Wolf. Wolf, 24, was jailed on September 22, 2006, on civil contempt charges for his refusal to turn over to a federal grand jury his unpublished video (as well as cameras and editing equipment) of a July '05 anti-globalization demonstration in San Francisco. As Tom notes, OJR's coverage spans the chronology of the case, as well as case law and "the nuances that separate his plight from that of mainstream media folks," who have been involved in similar court cases.

According to OJR, the reaction of journalists to Wolf's plight is mixed. Wolf's journalism portfolio has been categorized as "thin", but Wolf's refusal to turn over the video, and his "willingness to go to prison" has gained the support of many journalists and free speech advocates. The Society of Professional Journalists has donated $30,000 towards his legal fees. SPJ President Christine
Tatum said of Wolf :"As unconventional and non-traditional as [Josh Wolf's] work in journalism may be in many respects, he is contesting an age-old argument... and that's that journalists never should be arms of law enforcement. . .Josh has, at great personal cost, taken quite a stand – an admirable stand, and he has said..., 'I am not divulging unpublished, unedited, unaired material...for a grand jury's review. And we stand wholeheartedly behind him."

Yet others feel that Wolf's assertion that he's also an "advocate" is problematic. "You can't step in and out of being a journalist," said Jane Briggs-Bunting, director of the Journalism program at Michigan State University. Tatum added, "There is a degree of discomfort that I've felt with some of his assertions, as far as viewing himself as an advocate. I think that it's very important for online journalists to begin to understand.. that it's very, very important that you do maintain some sort of objectivity and distance."

From a legal perspective, Wolf may have an uphill battle defending his First Amendment rights. The case has gone to the Federal courts, rather than the California state courts, where he may have had some protection under California's shield law. This law "protects journalists from being required to disclose unpublished information gathered for a news story." It was found that the case could come under federal jurisdiction because the San Francisco Police Department receives federal funding, and that the damage to a police car, which was recorded by Wolf, constitutes damage to federal property.

Federal prosecutors have maintained that the tapes will help them locate the persons responsible for damage to SFPD property. First Amendment advocate Martin Garbus, Wolf's lawyer, maintains that the government isn't all that interested in "alleged crimes committed at the demonstration. "This was the use of an FBI anti-terror law to get information on people they can't get information about, such as anarchists. They know he knows nothing about the actions involving the police car," Garbus said.

Garbus maintains that Wolf's case, because he does not know anything about the identities of those he videotaped, is different than that of another high-profile case against journalists in the SF area. SF Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada were jailed for their refusal to reveal the identity of a confidential source who leaked federal grand jury testimony in the BALCO steroid scandal to the reporters.


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