Journalist Wolf still in prison
as justice is miscarried again
November 21, 2006
William H. Alsup and Jeffrey Finigan are probably looking forward
to sharing gourmet Thanksgiving feasts with their families.
Thanks to them and absent any miracle, freelance blogger and
videojournalist Josh Wolf will spend Thanksgiving at the federal
prison in Dublin.
Wolf has been in and out of the prison - mostly in - since Alsup,
a U.S. district judge, sent him there Aug. 1 for refusing to let
a federal grand jury have unedited, unaired footage of an anarchists'
demonstration he shot in San Francisco in July 2005.
Finigan is the federal prosecutor who held sway with Alsup and
the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. And he was equally successful
this afternoon, convincing Alsup that Wolf should not receive
a Thanksgiving weekend furlough.
Wolf's attorneys still hope to persuade Alsup to view the tape
to determine if it contains any information that the grand jury
can use as it investigates the damaging of a San Francisco Police
car during the demonstration.
I'm not optimistic. Alsup seems all to eager to avoid taking
any moral responsibility in the case.
In issuing today's decision, he said it was "not entirely
clear" that his court had jurisdiction over the furlough
reques,t or over a release motion submitted by Wolf's attorneys.
Then he went ahead and decided anyway: "The Court finds that
the request for a Thanksgiving holiday from confinement is not
warranted. It is so ordered."
U.S. District Judge William Alsup
Photo courtesy Ninth
Moreover, during the Aug. 1 hearing, Alsup voiced reluctance
to view the tape to determine relevance; that, he said, was the
grand jury's function.
Wolf, who was at today's court session, dressed in federal prison
beige fatigues, held his ground: By letting the grand jury have
the raw footage he would be violating the time-honored principle
that a reporter is not an arm of the prosecution, of the court,
or of the federal grand jury. He would essentially destroy the
trust gained as a journalist.
He appeared as resolute today - after having spent 90
days behind bars - as he did before he was wrongfully imprisoned.
The cases of Wolf and other journalists who face or have experienced
imprisonment for upholding that principle are symptomatic of some
trends that pose a grave danger to our democracy:
- With an alarmingly growing frequency, governments at all levels
are taking steps to control the flow, volume and content of the
information that reaches the public.
- Governments want to stifle the freedoms of speech, of the press
and of peaceable mass protest.
These trends predate George W. Bush's presidency, but Bush and
his cronies have done everything they can to accelerate and expand
And they underscore the need for a federal shield law to uphold
the rights of journalists to protect sources and to keep possession
of unpublished/unaired materials. California and 38 other states
have enacted shield laws, and court decisions have upheld the
journalists' protections in 10 other states. The lone holdout,
by the way, is Wyoming - Dick Cheney's home state.
If there's any good news, it's that journalists, news outlets
and journalist organizations are finally coalescing around the
issue. Whether it's too late remains to be seen. But it's likely
to be a long, extremely difficult fight. The way that Bush, with
the help of a rubber-stamp Senate, has been able to pack the federal
judiciary, the damage wrought to the Constitution will take at
least a generation to repair.
There are lots of things that we average Joes and Janes can do
in the meantime. We can give moral and financial support to Wolf.
We can let U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales know that we're
onto the Justice Department's game and we intend henceforth to
fight it at every opportunity.
I'll tell you early next week how you can do those things. Right
now, I'll beg your patience because it's late and tomorrow I go
on the road for the holiday weekend. Good night and happy Thanksgiving.
Richard Knee is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco,
and is active on First Amendment and freedom-of-information issues.
E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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