Court Upholds Contempt Ruling Against Reporters
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ A federal appeals court today upheld contempt of court findings against four South Carolina reporters who refused to testify in a state senator’s bribery trial.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that ″absent evidence of governmental harassment or bad faith,″ the reporters have no privilege different from other citizens to avoid testifying at a criminal trial.
The reporters - Andrew Shain of The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, Sid Gaulden and Schuyler Kropf of The Post & Courier in Charleston, and Cindi Ross Scoppe of The State in Columbia - refused to testify about stories they had written quoting state Sen. Jefferson Marion Long Jr.
Long, who was later indicted for allegedly accepting $2,800 from federal undercover agent Ronald Cobb to vote for a pari-mutuel bill, was quoted in the stories as saying he had received only a $300 campaign donation from Cobb.
A federal jury on Nov. 23 found Long guilty of bribery. A judge later set aside the conviction. Federal prosecutors want to retry Long, and they want the reporters to testify.
In the first trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alfred N. Bethea Jr. subpoenaed the reporters to testify that Long had, in fact, made the statements they had reported. Bethea had a videotape that purported to show Long accepting the $2,800.
The reporters refused to testify, citing First Amendment privilege. They also said the government failed to exhaust all reasonable alternative sources as required by Department of Justice guidelines.
U.S. District Judge Falcon B. Hawkins of Columbia disagreed and ordered the reporters to testify. The reporters again refused, and Hawkins ordered them confined during the two days of trial. While confined at the courthouse during the day, they were allowed to go home overnight.
In its ruling today, the three-judge appeals panel said Long’s statements to the reporters were not confidential, and the government did not seek their testimony to harass them.
The court also said the government’s investigation had not uncovered any example of Long claiming innocence, other than the statements he gave reporters.
Jay Bender, the reporters’ attorney, said he was disappointed by the ruling ″because certainly I didn’t think the government made any effort to find any other witnesses to the fact.″ He also said the ruling contradicted those made by other federal appeals courts. He said he would have to study the ruling before deciding whether to appeal.
Judge Paul V. Niemeyer, who wrote the opinion, was joined by Judge J. Michael Luttig.
Judge James Harvie Wilkinson III concurred, but wrote that he was ″troubled by any rule which says that a reporter’s exclusive ‘scoop’ of a public figure’s version of events makes that same reporter uniquely vulnerable to a government subpoena.″
″The values served by an independent press will be diminished if reporters covering a case are routinely dragged into its midst,″ Wilkinson wrote.