By: Joel Davis

Higher Court Will Hear 1st Amendment Case

An unrepentant editor and publisher of a small semiweekly in rural
Northern California was released from jail last week after serving five
days for refusing to reveal sources for a story.

‘It’s fine that the judge found me in contempt because the feeling is
absolutely mutual,’ Tim Crews, the soft-spoken editor of the
Sacramento Valley Mirror , told a throng of reporters outside the
Tehama County Jail in the sleepy Northern California town of Red Bluff.
‘His complete lack of respect for the First Amendment and the
California shield law showed completely.’

Crews, jailed Feb. 27, runs a paper based in Artois, barely a wide spot
in the road along desolate Highway 5. While his paper, which he calls a
‘mix of community news, 4-H news, and investigative journalism,’ has a
small circulation of about 2,600, his case has attracted worldwide
interest and drawn support from newspapers and First Amendment
advocates across the country.

The burly Crews, who with his suspenders and snow-white beard and hair
looks a bit like Santa Claus, was allowed to call his attorneys from
jail and even penned a front-page editorial about the experience from
his cramped cell. He bunked with some 35 other inmates – most in their
20s and 30s – who looked up at him as something a father figure/hero,
he said.

One inmate in a prison-issue orange jumpsuit, trusted to do some
weeding outside the jail, boasted that he helped sneak Crews some
coffee. ‘Everyone knows what’s going on, and it’s not right,’ he said,
declining to give his name for fear of punishment.

Donna Settle, Crews’ girlfriend and the Mirror ‘s managing editor,
greeted him outside the jail with their two dogs. Settle was aided by
volunteers, including two staffers from the San Francisco Bay Guardian
, in putting the paper out while Crews was in jail.

In addition to volunteers putting out the paper, which Crews normally
writes, edits, and delivers throughout the hinterland in a beat-up old
truck, the crusading journalist has received upwards of $75,000 in pro
bono and extended-credit legal help from attorneys interested in the

Crews was sentenced to five days in jail Jan. 14 by Tehama County
Superior Court Judge Noel Watkins for declining, during a preliminary
hearing, to name two sources used for a story about a firearm-theft
charge against a former California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer.

Appeals courts, including the California Supreme Court, denied his
petition to stay the contempt charge. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals, his last court of appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, has
agreed to hear the case, and Crews and his attorneys will submit briefs
April 6. ‘The court will hear it,’ Crews said. ‘I just won’t get my
five days back.’

Because the firearm-theft case has been bound over for trial, Crews
could be subpoenaed for his sources again, and the case is being
watched closely as a test of the First Amendment vs. a defendant’s (in
this case, the CHP officer) right to a fair trial. The state’s shield
law is now out of the picture with the case at the federal level.

The California First Amendment Coalition’s Terry Francke said that how
the courts will rule is anybody’s call. ‘Many courts in other judicial
circuits recognize that there is some protection [for the media] when
information is sought by a defendant. It’s not a dead-bang win for
either side; it depends on how high the hurdles [are set] for the
defendant to get information under the First Amendment. And the judge
in Tehama County set the hurdle very low.’

Shield law gets a workout

California’s shield law, part of the state constitution and considered
one of the stronger of its kind in the country, has rarely been tested
– but it’s been getting a real workout lately. Crews is the first
journalist jailed since its inception in 1980.

In addition to Crews, David Sommers, editor of The State Hornet at
the California State University at Sacramento, has been ordered by a
state Superior Court judge to either hand over unpublished notes and
photos of a campus arrest during a bleachers brawl at a football game
last September or face jail. Sommers, who says he won’t release the
material, has appealed to the state’s 3rd District Court of Appeal in
Sacramento and is due in court March 26.

Also, the Gannett Co. Inc.-owned Marin Independent Journal is
fighting a contempt-of-court charge against a former reporter who is
refusing to testify about eyewitnesses to a 1997 murder. Dan Fost, 37,
formerly of the Independent Journal , a 42,000-circulation daily based
in Novato, Calif., faces a $1,000 daily fine until he answers questions
from Marin prosecutors seeking information about his interviews of
witnesses to a murder in Marin City. The fine has been suspended
pending an appeal of the case to a California appeals court. (Fost now
works for the San Francisco Chronicle.)

The cases have attracted the attention of California Assemblywoman
Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) who is exploring amending the
California Procedures Code to require appellate courts to automatically
review shield cases.


Staff reports

Joel Davis (winston2@reachme.net) is West Coast
editor for Editor & Publisher magazine.

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