“I will go to the wall and protect you. I will do that.” This is the promise former USA Today reporter Toni Locy made to her sources when she was ordered by a federal judge to give up the names of her confidential sources.
Her refusal to hand over the names resulted in a Locy being held in contempt of court and facing fines as high as $5,000 a day and possible jail time if she did not comply.
“It didn’t bother me when I was awake. I dreamed about it, the problems that it could have caused me financially and personally in terms of going to jail. When I was conscious I was fine because I knew what I was doing and I knew this was a fight that I was willing to make,” Locy said.
When Locy reported on the anthrax investigation into the attacks in 2001 that resulted in the deaths of five people and the sickening of 17 others, she viewed the stories as unremarkable, routine reports on the justice department, the beat she was assigned to cover.
In 2008, her work on these two unremarkable stories brought her into a federal lawsuit, which resulted in life-altering consequences that Locy would have to deal with for the next year and a half.
“It was the most intense period of my career from the day of 9/11 on. For the next two and a half to three years it was non-stop,” Locy said.
On May 29, 2003 and Jun.10, 2003, she published two stories on the FBI’s surveillance of a person of interest in the investigation, Dr. Steven Hatfill who was a former researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
Hatfill sued the Department of Justice after the publication of the articles for a violation of privacy when federal agents leaked his name in connection to the anthrax investigation to Locy and other reporters. His lawyers subpoenaed several journalists for the names of their sources in order to find the agents responsible.
Locy says that all the other reporters made some kind of deal with Hatfill’s lawyers to get out of the subpoena, which disappointed her.
“Had we all stood together and refused and stood up…I really believe that Judge Walton would not have wanted to be the federal judge who sent five reporters from some of the biggest and best news organizations to jail.”
When U.S District Judge Reggie. B Walton ordered her to give up the names of her sources, Locy told him that she could not remember who she had talked to for that story and that she had thrown away her notes.
Walton demanded that she hand over a complete list of all the confidential sources she had ever used and held her in contempt of court until she did, with fines starting at $500 a day the first week up to $5,000 a day the third week. At the end of three weeks, Walton threatened her with jail time.
“My experience in that case, it was painfully obvious that Walton has no appreciation and very little respect for the role of journalists in our democracy,” Locy said.
Many states have laws to protect journalists from being forced to name sources, but since Locy’s case was a federal one these laws did not help her.
“There is no such thing as a federal reporter’s privilege law because Congress has never passed a reporter’s privilege law. You can be dragged through a federal court in a way you would never be dragged in a state court,” said Frank Lamonte, the Executive Director for the Student Press Law Center.
However, Lamonte believes that Walton went too far in Locy’s case. “If it’s a case with an escaped murderer on the loose, then you could justify possibly violating the privilege in a way that it’s hard to justify when you’re just pursuing a leak of government information.”
Eventually, Hatfill settled out of court and Locy was released from any obligation to give up her names or pay any of the fines.
“I have enormous respect for people who put their own personal welfare on the line to stand up for that principle,” Lamonte said. “It would be very easy to fold, but it’s remarkable that people like Toni feel so strongly about the promises they’ve made, that they are willing to put their own welfare on the line for it.”
Brian Richardson, the head of the Department of Journalism at Washington and Lee University, where Locy currently teaches, believes her experience enhances her work as a professor.
“You don’t become a really good reporter at the level she did without being passionate and having a really great work ethic,” Richardson said. “She cares deeply about her students and works really, really hard for them.”
Locy still loves her field and hopes her students will as well. “It’s never boring. You’re not doing the same thing twice. If you are then, you’re not doing it right. It’s incredibly fun, it’s incredibly rewarding,” Locy said.