Why Are the Feds After Josh Wolf?

If he cares to, Josh Wolf can claim his place in the Guinness Book of Records. A few days ago, he passed Vanessa Leggett as the longest incarcerated American journalist.

Ms. Leggett was made to sit in a jail cell for 168 days five years ago. Josh Wolf, who is 24, has been locked up in a federal facility in Dublin, Calif., since last August. (His lawyers got him out for a few days in September, but he’s been back now for months.)

The two cases are very different. Ms. Leggett’s was a straight-out confidential-sources case arising from gathering information and interviews for a book about a murder. “They wanted any and all copies and originals of interviews I conducted for the book—the entire research archive, even depriving me of copies for myself,” she told the Columbia Journalism Review.

“When my attorney asked one of the prosecutors during a closed hearing why they had subpoenaed those materials, the answer was that they had heard allegations of vindictiveness on the part of certain agencies. I inferred that they were looking for any statements made by police that would show that this prosecution was vindictive.”

In resisting the subpoena to fink on those whom she had promised to protect, Ms. Leggett argued that the government “had not been specific in their request, that the subpoena was over-broad, that it was a fishing expedition, basically. Also, that they had not established that any of the information sought was relevant to their investigation. And thirdly, that they hadn’t met the burden of showing that the information was not obtainable from other sources besides the writer.”

The judge wasn’t entertaining any such reasoning, nor did any pleadings having to do with the First Amendment get Ms. Leggett anywhere. Indeed, Ms. Leggett was adjudged a non-journalist because she didn’t have a contract for the book she was researching. Judges are less sympathetic toward freelance journalists, especially if they are unconnected to a big-time media corporation or are young and haven’t yet had much published.

Trying to define who might or might not be a journalist eligible for exemption from being compelled to rat on news sources is tricky. You can’t have bank robbers, confidence men or dangerous conspirators claiming the privilege. At the other end of the argument, in the Internet age, it would be a joke if reserving the immunity privilege were limited to people on the payroll of NBC or the New York Post—both organizations which disseminate news, if at all, by accident but are categorized as mainstream media.

Young Josh’s case is both weaker and stronger than Ms. Leggett’s was. The young man is a videographer. Mr. Wolf’s troubles began in July 2005, with his recording a demonstration in San Francisco protesting a meeting of officials from the world’s richest countries meeting in Scotland. The demonstrators were a wild, hair-up-the-ass anarchist bunch. In the course of their carrying on, violence flared. Off camera, a policeman suffered a broken skull, some newspaper vending machines were tossed, some windows broken and, apparently, an attempt (which failed) was made to set a police car on fire.

This manifestation, by a group calling itself Anarchist Action, was not Ten Days That Shook the World–type stuff. There were, by Mr. Wolf’s estimate, about 100 of these loony tunes, most of whom were making a lot of noise but not breaking the law. Life as they live it in San Francisco was not under threat; nevertheless, it had some local news interest.

Mr. Wolf sold some of his footage to local TV and put some on his blog. The next thing he knew, the federal government was after him to give them all his raw, unedited footage and a lot more. (The attack or whatever happened to the police officer is not on the footage, because Mr. Wolf and his video machine were taking pictures someplace else.)

Mr. Wolf explains: “What the government wants me to do, as far as we can tell, is to identify civil dissidents who were attending this march, who were in masks and clearly did not want to be identified, but whose identities I may know some of, as … I’ve been following (and) … documenting civil dissent in the San Francisco Bay Area for some two and a half years now.”

In response to this demand, Mr. Wolf made a counterproposal. He says, “We’ve offered to turn the video over to the judge to review in camera to determine whether or not there is any evidence on the tape.” The feds’ position was: Do as we tell you or you’re in contempt, and you go to jail until you obey.

Spraying paint, knocking over newspaper boxes and whacking a cop are local offenses under California or municipal law, not federal offences. Here’s the rub: The state and the city have disposed of their law-enforcement concerns. Nothing local is pending. What’s happening to Josh Wolf is purely federal, so what is going on?

“It’s my belief,” he says, “that what they want to do is … have me identify the people in the video. Then any people that I’m able to identify would in turn be called in. Those people would then be forced to either go to jail for contempt or name the people in the video that they saw. Then those people would follow the same procedure, like so forth and like so forth, until they had a database of everyone that was there that night.”

Mr. Wolf has chosen to go to jail rather than cooperate, but he’s in a difficult position: Not only is there no federal shield law for journalists, but he has no grounds for resisting the government. He has no confidential informants here.

What Josh Wolf is doing is resisting something that looks a lot like an American version of an operation by the Stasi, the East German Communist security police, who controlled the society through compiling secret dossiers on virtually everybody.

Let’s hope that when more people find out about what is being done to Josh Wolf, they see that his case is not another example of “the media” asking for special favors. Yes, he probably should enjoy some protection as a journalist, but he is also in jail because he is resisting a government operation which is entirely too close to police-state tactics.

Josh Wolf is getting publicity, but not enough of it. As the weeks go by and nothing new happens, he drops out of sight. If you want to keep track of him, go to joshwolf.net. Any little thing and every little thing will help.