National Lawyers Guild Condemns Jailing of Journalist Blogger

On August 1, 2006, federal Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California found 24-year-old independent journalist Joshua Wolf in contempt after he declined to comply with an order to turn over his videotape of a year-old San Francisco protest to a federal grand jury. Wolf was denied bail and immediately taken into custody. The National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area (NLGSF) condemns this attack on the independent media and activists. Read on for the full press release.

Updates on Josh's support can be found at http://freejosh.pbwiki.com.

National Lawyers Guild Condemns Jailing of Journalist Blogger

Yesterday Federal Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California found 24-year-old independent journalist Joshua Wolf in contempt after he declined to comply with an order to turn over his videotape of a year-old San Francisco protest to a federal grand jury. Wolf was denied bail and immediately taken into custody. The National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area (NLGSF) condemns this attack on the independent media and activists.

"The US Attorney's Office, led by Assistant US Attorney Jeffrey Finigan, should be ashamed," said Carlos Villarreal, Executive Director of the NLGSF. "The grand jury and prosecutors choose to target Mr. Wolf to get a tape that they know shows nothing of significance. It is an unacceptable violation of Wolf's rights as a journalist and a waste of resources and tax dollars."

The National Lawyers Guild argues that (1) Judge Alsup should have found that the federal government had no jurisdiction in this case and, (2) even upon a finding of jurisdiction, Judge Alsup had the power to find a qualified 1st Amendment privilege in this context and should have weighed the very weak interest of the federal government in this case against the very serious Constitutional rights of Wolf to find in his favor.

Judge Alsup found that the federal government had jurisdiction in this case because, as the U.S. Attorneys argued, the San Francisco police car was paid for, in part, with federal funds. And further that there was a possible federal crime because smoke was visible near a police car in portions of the released video.

"The weak connection made by the Federal government to conjure up jurisdiction in this matter should strongly suggest that Mr. Finigan and this grand jury are not concerned with legitimate law enforcement and are more likely interested in attacking freedom of the press and activists," said Villarreal. "If the allegations that someone tried to set a San Francisco police vehicle on fire had any merit, there would be a local investigation into the matter." In fact local prosecutors are pursuing charges against three activists for various crimes allegedly committed in the course of last year's protest. None of the charges involve arson or attempted arson of a police vehicle.

Furthermore, case law suggests that journalists should have qualified immunity under these circumstances, and judges should decide whether free speech rights in a particular instance outweigh the needs of the government. In this case, Judge Alsup dismissed the need to conduct a balancing test but stated that such a test would be a "slam dunk" for the government. The Judge failed to grasp the far-reaching effects this decision might have on freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

"In this case we had the entire independent media and its benefits to a free society on one side versus a trumped up allegation by the federal government on the other," said Villarreal. "If the government can act this way, why should activists feel comfortable speaking with or being photographed by journalists? Maybe people should avoid political expression altogether. Maybe sympathetic journalists should avoid covering controversial protests. The chilling effect is exponential."

Court documents and past news articles can be found at http://joshwolf.net/grandjury/

Updates on Josh's support can be found at http://freejosh.pbwiki.com/