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Why Is Vanessa Leggett In Jail?

by Steve Chapman

1st Amendment protection should follow the function, not the person
People convicted of all sorts of crimes get off without spending any significant time behind bars, but Vanessa Leggett is not some petty criminal who can be excused so easily. No, she's such a threat to society that she has been in jail since July 20, and she could be there until January 2003. What's her crime? Behaving like a journalist.

Now, some members of my profession conduct themselves in a manner so obnoxious that maybe they deserve to be locked up. But Leggett isn't in trouble for being an overbearing jerk. She's in trouble for following the best traditions of the American press, by ferreting out valuable information that she hoped to convey to the public in print. And her reward is to be crucified by government lawyers who are angry that she refuses to serve as an unpaid criminal investigator.

Leggett, a 33-year-old, part-time writing instructor at the University of Houston-Downtown, has never published a work of journalism, though she's tried. But she has aspirations to write a book about a local murder case. In 1997, Doris Angleton, the wife of a wealthy bookmaker, was shot to death in her Houston home. Her husband Robert and his brother Roger were charged with the crime.

Leggett got interested in the subject and managed to interview Roger in jail. Before he could be put on trial, Roger complicated matters by writing a note absolving his brother and then killing himself. Robert Angleton was tried but acquitted. Last year, the FBI began investigating him and approached Leggett, who answered questions but refused to divulge confidential information.

So the feds subpoenaed her notes for a grand jury probe. When she refused to comply, a judge held her in contempt of court and imprisoned her. Last week, a federal appeals court upheld that order. Unless she capitulates, Leggett could be in jail for the next 17 months, until the grand jury's term expires.

She's hardly the first journalist to come up with material that could be helpful to police. Many reporters spend every day pursuing information about wrongdoing, and they often make discoveries that law enforcement people have missed. But government officials generally respect the right of the press to do its job -- which it can't do if it's forced to serve the convenience of prosecutors.

You see, a lot of people who are willing to talk confidentially to journalists would shut up if they knew their identity might be disclosed. In fact, shady types might come to regard reporters as cops without badges, who should be avoided at all costs and dealt with violently, if necessary, to keep them from learning anything. Journalists, meanwhile, would be pulled off their beats to troop to the courthouse every time some district attorney thinks they might know an interesting fact or two. Ultimately, the public would suffer because less information would be available.

Both the government and the news media understand all this. So the press customarily refuses to cooperate with such efforts, and the government rarely insists.

In this case, though, the prosecutors insist Leggett is not a reporter, since she's not employed as one, hasn't been published, and has no book contract. Everyone has to start somewhere, though. What's important is not Leggett's resume but the tasks she performed -- interviewing people and gathering material for the purpose of transmitting it to the public.

The protection should follow the function, not the person. If a reporter walking down the street happens to witness an armed robbery, she should (and would) be treated like any other witness. But if an aspiring writer unearths information during her journalistic research, it shouldn't matter if she's drawing a paycheck from a media company. Law enforcement officials should no more be free to demand her materials than they should be to go into a newsroom and cart away the files.

Of course the fact that Leggett isn't working for a big newspaper or TV station may explain why the U.S. attorney felt free to harass her. Prosecutors don't go out of their way to pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel. Leggett, without the protection of an institution with the resources to fight back, is a more inviting target.

The U.S. attorney insists that the grand jury is entitled to every person's testimony. But certain confidential relationships take priority over the short-term needs of law enforcement. We don't expect attorneys to testify about what their clients tell them, we don't compel priests to relay what they hear in the confessional, and we don't ask doctors to snitch on their patients.

The same logic applies to reporters and their sources. The public interest demands that some secrets remain secret. Vanessa Leggett understands that. Why doesn't the Justice Department?

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor August 27, 2001 (

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