Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ president, 937/225-2323 or email@example.com; Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel, 202/861-1660 or firstname.lastname@example.org
INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists and other media organizations filed an emergency motion to fight the sealing of Wednesday's appeal hearing for Vanessa Leggett, a Houston writer who has been jailed since July 20 for refusing to turn over notes and research to a federal grand jury.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has said that Leggett's hearing will not be open to the public or to organizations, such as SPJ, that wish to present arguments to the court on Leggett's behalf. SPJ and seven other media organizations filed Monday a joint motion to intervene and lift the court's closure of the courtroom.
"What does the court have to hide?" said SPJ President Ray Marcano, an assistant managing editor for the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. "The answer should be nothing, and that's why the proceeding should be open. The public has a right to know why Vanessa Leggett is being detained, and it has a right to know which judge is making these decisions."
The SPJ board of directors last Friday approved a $12,500 grant to pay half of Leggett's legal fees, which her attorney, Mike DeGeurin of Houston, has capped at $25,000. The Society is challenging other news organizations across the country to make up the difference, and the Houston Chronicle has donated $1,000.
"If ever there was a case deserving support from the nation's news organizations, this is it," said Christine Tatum, chairwoman of the SPJ Legal Defense Fund and a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. "Vanessa Leggett's case is relevant to all journalists because it stands to set a dangerous precedent that compromises their integrity and independence. It is imperative that newsrooms not only cry foul about Leggett's treatment but actually do something about it."
Leggett was found in contempt for refusing to hand over her notes, research, tape recordings and interview transcripts to a federal grand jury investigating the 1997 murder of a Houston millionaire's wife.
She was conducting the research and interviews to complete a book manuscript on the slaying of Doris Angleton, wife of former bookie Robert Angleton. Robert Angleton and his brother, Roger, were charged with capital murder in the case.
Before his trial in 1998, Roger Angleton committed suicide in the Harris County Jail, leaving behind a note claiming that he was solely responsible for his sister-in-law's slaying. Leggett interviewed Roger Angleton while he was in jail.
SPJ is seeking to present arguments on Leggett's behalf in the appeals court because the organization contends that freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution should apply to all individuals, not simply to a full-time staff member of a print or broadcast media entity.
Individuals who are engaged in the practice of gathering information for dissemination to the general public should be free to gather and report without fear of becoming an arm of the government.
The Leggett case is an important one for those working in newsrooms because the government sets a dangerous precedent when it takes steps to restrict any individual freedom. The next step may be to specifically restrict journalists' works or demand those works for the government's use.
Organizations, besides SPJ, that signed the emergency motion to open Wednesday's appeal hearing are ABC Inc., The Associated Press, Belo Corp., CBS News, the National Broadcasting Co. Inc., The New York Times Co. and the Tribune Co.
"Appeals courts cannot willy-nilly close proceedings without giving the public — and the press — notice and an opportunity to explain why closure is not necessary," said Bruce Brown, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel at Baker & Hostetler in Washington, D.C. "This is one more insult in an already constitutionally dubious process."