Free Josh Wolf
Joshua Wolf is not a typical torchbearer for freedom of the press. He’s an anarchist and a blogger. He’s an advocate and a rabble-rouser. His Web site promises the opposite of that old Gil Scott-Heron’s slogan. In Wolf’s world, “The revolution will be televised.”
But he won’t be shooting the videotape, at least not right now. That’s because the 24-year-old freelance videographer has been sitting in a prison cell for three months for refusing to turn over unpublished protest video to federal prosecutors.
The background: Wolf shot video at a July 2005 anarchists’ anti-globalization demonstration in San Francisco protesting the G8 summit being held in Scotland at the time. The demonstration turned disorderly, even violent at times, with some protesters vandalizing property and clashing with police. When federal prosecutors and the grand jury demanded that Wolf give up the “outtakes” of his video (footage he hadn’t sold to various local television stations or posted on his Web site) so they could identify certain protesters, he said no. His lawyers argued that he had the right as an independent journalist to protect unpublished portions of the tape. The First Amendment is not just there to protect mainstream ideas, nor solely the mainstream media.
Wolf was imprisoned for a month for this refusal, then released for appeal, then sent back to prison when judges upheld the original contempt-of-court order. To add insult to injury, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup had the recent temerity to deny the young man his request for a furlough to visit his family for Thanksgiving.
So there he sits.
What’s especially chilling about the Wolf case is that the federal government basically is arguing that a reporter can be made to turn over unpublished material to aid a government investigation. (Though an advocate, Wolf clearly went to the protest in the capacity of an independent journalist, as can easily be discerned by viewing his published video. See column note.) Since when are journalists supposed to work on behalf of the government?
Wolf’s case is particularly sobering because it comes at a time when First Amendment protections and press freedoms are under assault across the country. Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused a request by the New York Times to prevent government prosecutors from claiming the right to review two reporters’ phone records to identify confidential sources in a case related to two Islamic charities with suspected terrorist ties.
The ruling is yet another that goes against a free press and a reporter’s basic right to grant confidentiality to sources. As anybody familiar with Watergate knows, journalists need to promise confidentiality sometimes to get key people to talk to them. If reporters’ can’t protect such sources, they dry up and wrongful acts by people, corporations and governments go unreported and our democracy’s claim to a free press is diminished.
What’s next for Wolf? He faces the daunting possibility of sitting in a prison cell for eight more months, longer than any journalist ever has, until the grand jury’s term expires in July of 2007. This should not be his fate. Read the column note on the right to find out what you can do to voice your support for Josh Wolf.