Lexington, Virginia • ,
A federal appeals court has vacated a lower judge’s contempt order against the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications’ Reynolds Professor of Legal Journalism, Toni Locy, arising from stories she wrote when she was working for USA Today.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. issued the brief unsigned ruling Nov. 17. Locy had been cited for contempt for refusing to reveal sources she used in stories about the government’s investigation of former Army scientist Steven Hatfill.
Unidentified sources told several reporters, including Locy, that Hatfill was a possible suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people. In 2002 then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft called Hatfill a “person of interest” in the investigation.
Hatfill sued, alleging that FBI agents violated his privacy by leaking information to reporters about the government's investigation into the anthrax attacks. On March 7, in response to a motion by Hatfill’s lawyers, Federal District Judge Reggie B. Walton ordered Locy to reveal her sources or pay up to $5,000 a day in fines from her own pocket. Four days later a higher court granted a stay while Locy appealed the ruling.
In that appeal, Locy urged the court to decide her case. But last summer Hatfill and the government settled the case for $5.8 million, and Hatfill asked the court to dismiss Locy’s appeal. The appeals court granted Hatfill’s motion, saying that because the case had been settled there was no reason to rule on whether Locy should be allowed to protect her sources. The court also vacated the contempt order against her.
“I am grateful that the court of appeals vacated the draconian contempt citation against me,” Locy said. “But I remain concerned that the case is not over, given recent statements in court by Dr. Hatfill's lawyers that they intend to come after me to pay Dr. Hatfill's legal bills. The appeals court did not address this issue directly, and we must now wait to see whether Dr. Hatfill's lawyers follow through on their threat.”
“My colleagues and I are pleased and relieved that Prof. Locy no longer faces a contempt citation,” said Journalism Department Head Brian Richardson. “But it is unfortunate that the appeals court passed up an opportunity to affirm the necessity for reporters to be able to protect the identity of confidential sources.
“As reporters pursue their societal obligation to monitor our powerful institutions, their sources need to know that their identities can be protected when necessary,” Richardson said.