Panel: Journalists At Risk Without U.S. Shield Law

Written by Rebecca Rosen Lum. Posted in News, Politics

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Published on April 05, 2012 with 4 Comments

Wolf Contretemps Raise Question: Who’s a Journalist?

Documentary filmmaker Donna Lee (left), formerly imprisoned journalist Josh Wolf (second from left), and First Amendment Project attorney Jim Wheaton (center), comprised a panel Tuesday at the San Francisco Civic Center library to discuss First Amendment issues raised by Lee’s recently released documentary, “Activist Blogger: the Josh Wolf Story.” The event was sponsored by Pacific Media Workers Guild and moderated by Rick Knee (right), founding member of the Guild Freelance Unit. Photos by Luke Thomas.

By Rebecca Rosen Lum, Media Workers Guild

April 6, 2012

The forces that conspired to imprison blogger Josh Wolf pose a continuing threat to journalists, First Amendment Project attorney Jim Wheaton told an audience at a Pacific Media Workers Guild event Tuesday.

The Guild freelance unit hosted “Activist Blogger: the Josh Wolf Story,” a video and panel discussion including Wolf, Wheaton, and filmmaker Donna Lee.

Wolf spent 226 days at the federal detention center in Dublin between August 2006 and April 2007 – an experience he describes as “more boring than brutal” — for refusing to surrender raw video footage and give testimony to a federal grand jury about a Mission District demonstration in July 2005.

Josh Wolf

One of the questions asked the panel was how the federal government came to be involved, thus skirting the protections of the state’s shield law.

A police car was burned that night and an officer badly hurt, but at the time Wolf was filming a tense confrontation between police and demonstrators over the restraint of a man who had been thrown to the ground (an officer can be seen pressing his foot onto the man’s neck). The state’s shield law barred San Francisco police from demanding the footage, which they hoped to use to  identify participants.

However, law enforcement made the case that because a federal grant helped pay for police cars, including the one that burned, the FBI had jurisdiction.

The lack of a federal Shield Law continues to make journalists vulnerable to subpoena, searches and seizures– an issue unlikely to be resolved given the heightened rhetoric accompanying the “war on terror,” Wolf told the audience at the San Francisco Public Library.

Much of the film focuses on the debate over who is a journalist, with San Francisco Chronicle editor John Diaz comparing Wolf favorably to the publishers of the nation’s early broadsheets, and critics such as conservative columnist Deb Saunders branding Wolf “a journalist in his own mind” since he was not the employee of a news gathering organization and bound to a set of standards including impartiality.

“By that standard neither Michael Moore nor Michael Pollan are journalists,” Wheaton said. “I never want to hear the question again, ‘are bloggers journalists?’”

The mantle belongs to anyone who gathers information, compiles it in a format that is transmissible and disseminates it to a “willing audience,” he said.

Jim Wheaton.

The issue is timely, given the increasing number of news professionals working as freelancers. Oakland police recently arrested political cartoonist Susie Cagle while she covered an Occupy demonstration,  dismissing her freelance media credentials as ersatz.

Not all the news about news gatherers is bad, Wheaton said. A California Supreme Court ruling gutted a law that required law enforcement to seek a search warrant before searching a reporter’s cell phone , but then was trumped by legislation. Written by state Sen. Mark Leno, the law sailed through the Assembly on a unanimous vote.

Lee, who met Wolf during his run for mayor of San Francisco (he snagged 2,000 votes), shot “Activist Blogger” in about three weeks. The film is finding favor at journalism and law schools, where it engenders lively discussions about constitutional protections and free speech issues.

Donna Lee.

Wolf eventually made a deal with federal prosecutors. He agreed to share the footage, which he said showed nothing useful to them. In exchange, he did not have to testify.

Moderating the panel was journalist, free speech activist and Guild freelance board member Rick Knee, who also appeared in the film.

More Photos

The panelists were presented with Pacific Media Workers Guild T-shirts.

The event drew journalists, first amendment attorneys and freedom of press activists.


Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a veteran journalist who covers faith, culture and social issues. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in beat reporting for her coverage of Richmond, Calif. at the Contra Costa Times. Her series on the financial abuse of elders resulted in changes to California state law, and her reporting on conditions at residential hotels led to criminal charges and the closure of a facility. She is currently at work on a foundation-funded series on the impacts of incarceration on communities and the promises of realignment, a California state program that moves low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails.Her many awards include top honors from the California Teachers Association, the California Newspaper Publishers Association, and the National Association of Consumer Advocates. She also chairs the Pacific Media Workers Guild’s pioneering freelance unit. Under her leadership, the unit obtained dental and vision benefits, and introduced the Fair Freelance Seal, a commitment to decent pay and working conditions carried by a growing number of publications. She is working with independent journalists to launch new freelance units in Oregon, Washington and Colorado. She has taught English and civics to newcomers in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and serves as scholarship chair for the East Bay Press Club.

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Comments for Panel: Journalists At Risk Without U.S. Shield Law are now closed.

  1. You don’t need yet another law, “Federal Shield” or otherwise, you need to stop taking the Federal money.

  2. And Josh himself remains all but terminally cute. I enjoyed following his suit/countersuit battle with the Cal-Berkeley professor he ran afoul of while reporting on the sit-ins against tuition hikes, which ended in the campus bake sale to pay the fine when he finally lost to the professor in small claims court.

  3. Amen on that, Ann.

  4. “I never want to hear the question again, ‘are bloggers journalists?’”

    “The mantle [journalist] belongs to anyone who gathers information, compiles it in a format that is transmissible and disseminates it to a ‘willing audience,'” he [Wheaton] said.

    Amen. “He’s not a journalist” is the most tedious, intellectually irritating assertion of corporate and/or government authority.