Journalists Ordered to Reveal Sources Face Possible Jail Time, Financial Ruin

As rough as these days are for the reporters and editors of the Associated Press who had their phone logs subpoenaed by the Justice Department, they can take some solace: Things could be worse. 

Journalists who are ordered by a judge to cooperate with an official investigation face a set of unenviable choices. They can become the government’s eyes and ears and identify their confidential sources, or do jail time and tempt financial ruin for failing to comply. Consider these harrowing cases of reporters who found themselves on the working end of a court order. 

Toni Locy was ordered to reveal her sources for articles she wrote for USA Today in 2001 about Steven Hatfill, who was (falsely) implicated as the anthrax mailer and later sued the US government. Hatfill wanted to know who had given his name to Locy. When she refused to say, a judge ordered her to pay fines totaling up to $5,000 a day for every day she didn’t comply. He also prohibited Locy’s employer from reimbursing her–the money had to come out of Locy’s own pocket. The decision was stayed pending a decision from an appeals court, which eventually vacated the judge’s order after Hatfill settled his lawsuit with the government. 

In 2004, reporter Jim Taricani of WJAR-TV in Providence, Rhode Island, an NBC affiliate, received a six month house arrest sentence because he refused to say who gave him a secret FBI video recording of a local official taking a bribe. The judge said he would have sent Taricani to jail, but he showed mercy because the journalist, who had heart transplant surgery, was in poor health. 

Judith Miller of the New York Times spent 85 days in jail in 2005 for refusing to identify her sources in the “Plamegate” affair. Miller didn’t earn much sympathy among some colleagues for her flawed reporting on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction program. But she still did hard time, which is maybe the second worst thing to bankrupting oneself. 

In August 2006, Joshua Wolf, a freelance videographer, went to jail after he refused to turn over video footage of a protest in San Francisco in which a police car was burned and an officer was injured. Wolf spent 226 days in prison. He was released when he finally agreed to turn over his uncut footage. 

Beginning in 2008, James Risen, a New York Times reporter and book author, began fighting a legal battle that earned him two subpoenas demanding he identify a source for a book on the CIA. Bush White House officials were so incensed by what Risen had written in that they considered trying to stop the book’s production. Risen faced years of legal battles and the possibility of jail time. A judge ultimately limited the questions the government was able to ask Risen in court, and he has appealed to keep that decision in place. The case could end up in the Supreme Court.