As I write this, Vanessa Leggett is spending her 49th day in a Houston jail – making her the longest-jailed journalist in American history for refusing to disclose confidential sources. And here’s the real kicker: many folks reading that opening line are more offended that I referred to Leggett as a journalist than they are by the U.S. Justice Department’s attempts to force her to reveal the names of people she promised to protect. After all, they say, what kind of journalist could she possibly be? She hasn’t written a book. She hasn’t been published in a magazine or newspaper. Heck, she probably can’t tell AP style from the latest fashions. So why in the world, they ask, should she be granted the same protective privileges as a “real journalist?” Good thing the Society of Professional Journalists saw past that argument and rushed to Leggett’s rescue by paying half of her legal bills. SPJ’s generous $12,500 donation is the single largest Legal Defense Fund grant ever awarded, and has served as the catalyst for a national – it’s even safe to call it “global” – campaign urging her immediate release. Leggett is a part-time teacher and writer who has spent the past four years researching a high-society murder in Houston. She’s hoping to land a book deal to tell the story of the estranged wife of a millionaire who was killed in her home right before she could collect a hefty divorce settlement. The husband and his brother – the suspected killer – were charged. The brother eventually committed suicide in jail – but only after Leggett spent hours interviewing him. She provided federal authorities tapes of those interviews, but they weren’t satisfied. They demanded all of her research and notes. When she said no, they tossed her in jail. By no means does Leggett deserve an award for exemplary journalism. The merits of her case instead are tied to the functions of journalism: the freedom to gather information and to distribute it without fear of government intervention. Leggett clearly meets what Gregg Leslie of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press calls the “legal minimum” to be considered a journalist: she was gathering information with the intention of distributing it to the public. The second any of us – especially government agents – add conditions to that definition, we’re all in trouble. Think about it. A writer working for a newspaper with a circulation of less than 1,000 isn’t less deserving of the title “journalist” or of First Amendment freedom than someone working for a publication 100 times that size. But if we insist on drawing lines, where should they begin and end? Should we exclude free-lancers, students and e-mail newsletter distributors from protection? While we’re at it, perhaps we should drop everyone who doesn’t have a journalism degree (that’ll teach ’em for majoring in history or science instead). And what about would-be authors such as Leggett? I shudder to think what might have become of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” had the government taken an interest in it before it went to press. Then there’s James Neff, a former investigative reporter who might have watched his chances of publishing a book about the infamous Sam Shepherd murder trial disappear had an Ohio court successfully compelled him to divulge his research. Neff received an LDF grant last year. So let’s not lose sight of what is really at stake here by debating only “is she or isn’t she?” This isn’t about who does or doesn’t deserve the title “journalist.” This is about the First Amendment, which applies to all Americans. SPJ Secretary/Treasurer Robert Leger, editorial page editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader, explained beautifully why Leggett deserves our support: “People with no experience as journalists have written history-altering nonfiction books. They’ve held government and big business accountable. Do we want the government to be able to silence them with subpoenas and secret hearings? Not if we cherish freedom.” The Leggett case has been a strong reminder of the importance of SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund. The fund has a healthy balance, but could always use more money. Please donate money and/or auction items to SPJ’s national headquarters. And don’t hesitate to call me at 312/222-5184 if you’d like to volunteer additional support.
Christine Tatum is chairwoman of the Legal Defense Fund. She is also president of the Chicago Headline Club and a technology reporter for the Chicago Tribune.