Lawyers for a former USA Today reporter asked a federal appeals court Friday to reverse a contempt of court citation against the journalist, who refuses to reveal her sources for stories about the criminal investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks.
Attorneys for Toni Locy said she has no money to pay the fines imposed by U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, who ordered her to pay up to $5,000 a day out of her own pocket.
Locy’s lawyers called the fines “destructive sanctions” and said the judge had abused his discretion.
“She would have to turn to her family, her friends or to others” to pay the fines, “but the order forbids her to do so,” said the court filing by Locy’s lawyers.
The attorneys said Walton failed to apply the law. Federal courts in Washington, D.C., recognize a qualified First Amendment privilege enabling reporters to protect their sources in civil cases.
Locy has been pulled into a lawsuit against the government by scientist Steven Hatfill, who came under scrutiny in the still-unsolved anthrax attacks that killed five people and sickened 17 others. The anthrax mailings to Capitol Hill lawmakers and members of the media came just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Thirty-one news organizations including The Associated Press supported Locy in a separate filing in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Locy worked for the AP after she left USA Today.
Privacy Act claims like the ones Hatfill filed should not be “transformed into all-purpose anti-leak remedies wielded against government speech with reporters as collateral damage,” stated the brief by news organizations.
Hatfill’s private interest in obtaining additional evidence for his civil damages claim “cannot outweigh the public’s interest in protecting journalists’ abilities to report on matters as consequential as that at issue here: one of the largest, if not the largest, still-unsolved investigations in recent history into murders that terrified a nation,” the news media’s filing stated.
Walton is demanding that Locy provide the names of all the dozen or so Justice Department and FBI sources who provided her information for stories on the probe into the anthrax attacks.
She says she cannot recall which of her sources supplied information for two stories she wrote about Hatfill in May and June 2003.
Locy’s stories said that investigators were questioning whether they had focused on the wrong person, that evidence against Hatfill was largely circumstantial, that Hatfill’s answers to questions were evasive and that an FBI search of a pond near Hatfill’s house did not lead to any evidence tying him to the attacks.
Appeals court judges Douglas Ginsburg, Judith Rogers and Brett Kavanaugh are hearing Locy’s case. Ginsburg was appointed by President Reagan, Rogers by President Clinton and Kavanaugh by the current President Bush.