By: Joe Strupp
Toni Locy, the former USA Today reporter who’s facing potential massive fines for refusing to reveal her sources to a federal judge, says the situation is actually aiding her in teaching media law to her students at West Virginia University.
“I talk about it a lot in class, talking about sources and protecting sources,” says Locy, who has been the Shott Chair of Journalism at WVU since August 2007. “It helps them because they have a real world experience standing in front of them.”
But that is about the only positive Locy has gotten out of being found in contempt for refusing to reveal her source for coverage of the 2001 anthrax attacks.
Just this week, an appeals court stayed federal judge Reggie Walton’s previous order fining Locy hundreds of dollars a day for withholding the information in the Steven Hatfill case, in which the former U.S. researcher is suing the federal government for naming him as a “person of interest” in its investigation of the attacks.
Judge Walton last week ruled that Locy had to pay the fines herself, without USA Today help, before the stay was granted. He could reinstate the fines if her appeal fails.
“The fines were, I thought, overly harsh and I’m really happy that the court of appeals is going to consider the legal arguments that are relevant,” she said. “They are significant legal issues that should be considered by the courts. We also need the federal shield law passed. It could provide some protection.”
Locy, a USA Today reporter from 2000 to 2005, left the paper for a brief stint at Associated Press and then the University of Pittsburgh Law School where she received a masters in the study of law. That led to her West Virginia position.
The veteran reporter, who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, says she is not surprised that a story from so long ago would come back to haunt her given the legal system. But that does not diminish the worry about sourcing and reporter’s rights.
“I was concerned about the ramifications of the judge’s order, not just for me but for reporters everywhere,” she told E&P. “It is very stressful, it is very difficult and I have to deal with it and I am.”
Locy says the timing is somewhat of a surprise given that Hatfill’s attorneys had said two months ago they were ready to go to trial. “They said in January they were ready to go without my information,” she said. “Suddenly, now it is crucial. That raises a question. It is either crucial or it isn’t.”
She said this case points out the need to require judges and lawyers to pursue all other avenues for information before going to reporter sources. “We need to make sure that judges conduct an in-depth examination of whether a plaintiff or prosecutor really does need the information we have, I.E. sources’ identities,” she explained.
Locy also thanked USA Today Editor Ken Paulson for the column he wrote Wednesday defending her situation. “I am grateful that he said what he said,” she revealed. “I have received support from all over the country, it has been great.”