Time is running out for me.”
I heard those chilling words when I was in Philadelphia this past weekend for a conference of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. I was invited as the founding president of the fledgling Nevada Freedom of Information Coalition.
The luncheon speaker on Saturday was introduced by Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, who explained that she and our speaker had spent the previous week scouring the halls of Congress to twist the arms of as many senators as possible seeking support for a bill called the Free Flow of Information Act.
The bill is a federal version of the reporter shield laws that already exist in 49 states. It passed the House in October by a vote of 398-21. All three Nevada representatives voted for it.
One of the last senatorial offices they visited was that of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., where they spoke to two of his staffers. Reid is responsible for scheduling floor votes on various bills. Without his push, legislation can languish.
Dalglish recounted how our luncheon speaker repeatedly stated to Reid’s staffers, “Time is running out for me,” so much so that one of them at the close of the meeting remarked, “Yes, we get it. Time is running out.”
Time is running out for Toni Locy, a former USA Today reporter, who faces a threat of fines of $5,000 a day if she continues to refuse to reveal her sources for stories she wrote about a federal investigation into who sent the anthrax letters a week after Sept. 11, 2001, that killed five people.
Locy admitted she, like many journalists, had long balked at a federal shield law, believing is was unnecessary in light of First Amendment protections, and that it accorded a special privilege to the press.
Now that the press has become a special target of lazy prosecutors and plaintiff attorneys, it is time for special protection.
Locy told her audience, “It’s time to turn and fight. If we don’t fight for the First Amendment, who will?”
The case in which Locy faces onerous and bankrupting fines (the judge has said she may not receive any help in paying the fines from anyone) involves a civil lawsuit by former Army infectious disease researcher Steven Hatfill against the federal government for violating the Privacy Act by revealing he was a target of the anthrax probe.
One minor problem with the demand for Locy’s sources is that she wrote her stories in May and June of 2003, months after the August 2002 public remarks by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft calling Hatfill a “person of interest” in the case.
As one of the columnists at USA Today later wrote, how could her sources possibly “leak” anything when their boss “had already blown up the dam”?
Hatfill’s attorneys are merely trying to ring up a bigger tort lottery jackpot by piling on more accusations.
Still another problem, as Locy later explained to me, is that she had 10 or 12 sources for general stories on the anthrax matter, and she no longer has her notes these years later.
“I cannot match up information in that story to a particular source out of the larger pool of sources,” she said. “If Hatfill’s lawyers get all of those names, several people who had nothing whatsoever to do with the story will be burned.”
If they fail to bag a trophy catch while fishing in that pool of confidential sources, will they be back demanding more and more?
One of the ironies of Locy being targeted is that her two stories expressed considerable skepticism about the strength of the FBI’s case against Hatfill, comparing it to the fruitless probe of Richard Jewell in the Atlanta Olympic bombing. She quoted her sources as saying the evidence was “largely circumstantial” and saying agents could not risk the embarrassment of losing track of Hatfill and then being confronted with another anthrax attack. There’s a term for that: covering your ass.
The day after Locy’s speech, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an op-ed by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. He correctly noted “a media shield law would not primarily be protection for journalists; it would be protection for the public and for our form of government.”
Citizens must be allowed to see how well or how poorly our law enforcement agents are carrying out their jobs, without forcing reporters into bankruptcy.
Time is running out for Toni Locy … and a free press.
Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.