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Judge Punishes Reporter for Protecting Her Sources

Aden Fine,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project
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March 26, 2008

Toni Locy, a former reporter for USA Today, is the latest example of what has become an all-too familiar trend over the past few years: judges forcing journalists to disclose their confidential sources. Ms. Locy, who wrote about the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States, has been ordered to disclose her anonymous sources by a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit brought by Steven Hatfill, believed to be a suspect in the attacks, against the federal government. Locy, like many other journalists who have been confronted with such a situation, has thus far refused to comply with the Court’s order. What makes her situation even more unusual than normal is that the Court’s order makes her – and not her former newspaper – personally liable for failing to comply with the order – in the intentionally high amount of $5,000 per day – and that it requires her to disclose the identity of every single one of her sources who might have given her information for her articles, even though it is virtually certain that some of them did not provide such information.

Much that has been written about this case focuses on the rights of journalists (and their newspapers) and the harm that they would suffer if more courts issue rulings like this. Ms. Locy is obviously at great risk personally. But the real loser from all of this is the public. The articles at issue here concerned a matter of extreme public interest. If courts continue to force reporters to reveal their confidential sources, the clear result will be that sources will dry up and important stories will not be written. And the public will be denied the opportunity to receive this information.

The trend toward forcing journalists to disclose their sources is all the more troubling because of the rise of non-traditional journalists such as Internet bloggers and video documentarians. If courts are willing to force prominent, mainstream journalists from major newspapers to disclose their sources, one can only imagine what will happen to non-traditional journalists without any power or the resources to fight for their rights. The real loser, again, will be the public.

Locy’s case is currently on appeal to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. That Court now has the opportunity to make things right and to ensure that the public’s right to receive information from an unfettered press remains a vital part of our nation.