Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The FBI v. Joshua Wolf case

FBI v. Wolf
Citizen Media Law Project

The Federal Bureau of Investigations subpoenaed video blogger and freelance journalist Josh Wolf for information regarding a political demonstration that resulted in harm to a police officer. The FBI sought the identities of protestors who appeared in Wolf's video recording of the protest, which Wolf claimed was an attempt by the government to use a journalist (himself) as an investigative tool.

On July 8, 2005, Wolf filmed a San Francisco demonstration against the G8 summit in Scotland. During the course of the protest, a San Francisco police officer was injured, and protestors allegedly damaged a police car. Wolf published an edited version of the video on independant news site Indybay and also sold footage to local TV station KRON.

As part of an investigation into the officer's injury, the FBI subpoenaed Wolf to appear in front of a federal grand jury. The subpoena asked Wolf to produce the full video and any other documentation regarding the protest. The subpoena also sought information regarding the identities of individuals who appeared in the video.

Wolf filed a motion to quash the subpoena, claiming protection under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and California's journalist shield law. The North District of California denied Wolf's motion to quash. The court focused on federal journalist protections and held that Wolf was required to comply with the subpoena because he had not demonstrated that the grand jury investigation was conducted in bad faith.

After Wolf again refused to comply with the subpoena, the court ordered him to show cause as to why he should not be held in contempt of court. Wolf again asserted his First Amendment rights, as well as his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Wolf's arguments were supported by amicus briefs by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The court rejected Wolf's and the amici's arguments on grounds similar to those in its denial of Wolf's motion to quash. It held Wolf in contempt and ordered that he be confined until he complied with the subpoena. Wolf and his lawyers appealed the order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

On appeal, the 9th Circuit granted a motion allowing Wolf to leave prison on bail. However, the court soon after revoked bail persuant to a motion by the FBI. The court then affirmed the district court's contempt ruling and ordered Wolf to testify and reveal the unpubished portions fo the tape. The 9th Circuit's decision agreed with the district court's holding that Wolf could not legitimately refuse to comply with the subpoena without demonstrating that the grand jury was conducted in bad faith.

The FBI and Wolf ultimately settled the case. Wolf published the full version of the video online and filed a DVD copy with the court. In return, he was released from prison and did not have to testify in front of the grand jury. Wolf had served 226 days in prison, the longest term ever served by a journalist for refusing to disclose unpublished source material.

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