I’m sure you’ve noticed that our cover this month features Vanessa Leggett, the Houston writer whose high-profile jail stay made headlines during the past several months. Since her incarceration in July for refusing to give her notes on a murder case to a federal grand jury, Leggett has won the support of journalism groups across the country. SPJ was among those groups; the Society paid half of Leggett’s legal expenses through its Legal Defense Fund.
I’ve been slow to jump on the Vanessa Leggett bandwagon. Along with many other journalists, I was wary to make a journalism martyr of a woman who has arguably never really done journalism (depending on how you define “journalism,” but that’s a whole different story). Before her incarceration, Leggett’s only two published works were FBI manuals, and it was her research for a planned true-crime novel that caught the attention of federal prosecutors. When she chose jail over cooperating with authorities last July, it seemed like more of a public relations stunt than a stand for journalistic freedoms.
But that was nearly six months ago. After a record 168-day stay in jail, Leggett has gone through more to protect her notes from prosecutors than any journalist I know of. She still faces the prospect of returning to jail when a new grand jury is convened, and she says she would go back before surrendering her notes.
Either this is the longest-running publicity stunt in history, or Leggett really believes in what she’s doing.
But what really makes Leggett’s case important is the principle behind it. She was collecting information for an intended published piece, and federal authorities expected her to turn over her information – essentially, they expected her to do their job for them. Many journalists have found themselves in the position of defending their notes and protecting their sources, but Leggett’s case has gone on longer than any other. She’s now trying to take it all the way to the Supreme Court.
The timing of Leggett’s case makes it all the more important. Americans seem willing these days to sacrifice civil liberties in the name of national security, and the objections from the journalism profession do little to dissuade the push for tighter government restrictions on information and speech. The differences in perspective between journalists and the public is nothing new; critics of the news media have said for years that journalists’ values are very different from those of ordinary Americans, and debates over government openness and national security have shown that those values are moving even further apart. On Page 16, we examine how the coverage of the war has led to this widening gulf.
With public support waning, our battles for basic First Amendment and access rights are even more critical than before. As a profession, we have to dig our heels in so the freedoms that make our work possible aren’t eroded by the pressures of wartime. On Page 30, Ian Marquand writes about what SPJ and other organizations are doing to preserve those freedoms.
Leggett’s stand against federal prosecutors is important because her position is becoming less and less popular with the public. It’s hard to convince the public that journalism and law enforcement should be kept separate, and it’s even more difficult to do it in a time when the government is more popular than the media. Leggett’s case is not directly tied to press restrictions from the war on terror, but the sentiment that she is fighting is one and the same.
Jeff Mohl is the editor of Quill.