Appeals court stays fines against USA Today reporter

New York, March 13, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is pleased that a federal appeals court on Tuesday temporarily blocked a lower court’s ruling requiring a former USA Today journalist to pay thousands of dollars of fines out of her own pocket for refusing to disclose sources.

On February 29, U.S. District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton held the ex-journalist, Toni Locy, in contempt of court and ordered her to pay escalating fines, beginning on Tuesday, of $500 a day in the first week, $1,000 a day in the second week, and $5,000 a day in the third week if she continues to defy the court. Walton also stated that the ex-journalist may eventually face imprisonment if she still refuses to name her sources.

Walton placed an unprecedented condition when imposing the fines, ruling that Locy, who now teaches journalism at West Virginia University, may not receive financial support from anyone—including USA Today and its parent corporation, Gannett Co., Inc. —to help pay the sanctions. Walton said he agreed with Hatfill’s lawyers who had argued that Locy must pay the fines herself as she is the only former employee or employee of USA Today that can directly name her sources.

“We welcome the appeals court ruling, but we are deeply concerned by the unprecedented fines imposed on Toni Locy,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Reporters should not be put in the position by the courts where they face personal financial ruin for simply doing their job.”

Walton also prohibits Locy from receiving money from other news organizations or nonprofit journalism groups to help pay the fines. The nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press noted that “no judge has ever officially ordered that a reporter held in contempt may not accept reimbursement from an employer (or anyone else).”

USA Today published two articles in 2002 under Locy’s byline concerning scientist Steven J. Hatfill and the late 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States. Hatfill, who was never charged with a crime, is suing the U.S. Justice Department, citing the federal Privacy Act and accusing U.S. officials of leaking information about him to journalists who identified Hatfill as a “person of interest” in a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into the anthrax attacks. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft also publicly identified Hatfill as a “person of interest.”

Lawyers for Locy and USA Today appealed Walton’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. A coalition of 29 news organizations and nonprofit journalism organizations filed an amicus brief in support of Locy with the appellate court, calling the lower court ruling a “legal vise” and a “nightmare scenario that every reporter at every news organization dreads.”

A three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Locy had “satisfied the stringent standards required” to stay the imposition of the fines. According to USA Today, her lawyers argued that the fines amounted to “destructive financial penalties” for a reporter who had acted in ‘good faith.’” The appellate court has yet to decide on the lower court’s contempt ruling itself.