Person of Interest
Toni Locy (MSL ’07) has written thousands of stories in her 25 year career as a reporter. She has covered the U.S. Supreme Court, federal courts, and the nation’s criminal justice system as a legal reporter for some of America’s leading print media—from the Associated Press, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, to USA Today. She has written front-page investigative pieces and has broken news stories that grabbed national headlines.
And so she never would have guessed that the story she filed on May 28, 2003 for USA Today would have become a cause célèbre—and the defining article of her career.
It was to have been a straightforward news story—a wrap-up of the latest developments in the government investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks. But it was a story that would ultimately go to the very heart of First Amendment rights and freedom of the press, and would cast Toni Locy as one of our nation’s most valiant defenders of the media’s role in a free society.
Locy’s story looked at the ongoing surveillance of Steven J. Hatfill, a former U.S. Army scientist, and the person publicly identified by the Department of Justice as “a person of interest” in the government’s anthrax investigation. Hatfill was never charged with the anthrax attacks. He subsequently sued the Department of Justice and the FBI, claiming that federal privacy laws had been broken.
Locy was ordered to reveal the names of confidential sources cited in her 2003 USA Today article. When Locy refused, she was slapped with a contempt charge, punishing fines of up to $5,000 a day (to be paid without the help of the newspaper, friends, or family), along with “a not-so-subtle threat of jail,” says Locy.
The prospect of personal financial ruin was daunting enough, but far more disturbing to Locy was the significance of this order.
“I loved being a reporter. It was my heart and soul. I was not going to allow my profession to be ruined without a fight. Because if I were to lose, journalism as we have known it would be changed forever,” says Locy.
Speaking before a National Press Club audience recently, Locy said, “[The case] raised several serious issues that are not going to go away, such as: Whether reporters can be ordered, as I was, to reveal every source they have in order to allow plaintiffs (or even prosecutors) to conduct fishing expeditions in which they may or may not find the evidence they claim is crucial—or not so crucial—to their cases.”
She appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which stayed the fines and contempt charge, pending its own decision.
Thirty-five national news organizations signed an amicus brief on Locy’s behalf. And Locy’s case has served as a rallying cry for news organizations around the country as they push for passage of the Free Flow of Information Act—a federal shield law that would help protect journalists and their confidential sources.
“The relationship between reporters and their sources is a very important, valuable one for the free flow of information. If sources could not talk freely to reporters, “Deep Throat” would never have come forward and we would never have known about the Watergate scandal,” explains Locy.
“Reporters, editors and publishers must be ready to fight for a principle that is at the heart of the newsgathering process, and that is the use and protection of confidential sources,” said Locy in her National Press Club address.
This past June, Hatfill reached a settlement with the Department of Justice under which he will receive a total of $5.8 million. Meanwhile, Locy continues to await a ruling from the federal appeals court.
Locy has been lauded for her tenacity in fighting for freedom of the press and for championing a federal shield law. She was recently honored by the Society of Professional Journalists as the recipient of its First Amendment Award, and was awarded the John Aubuchon Freedom of the Press Award by the National Press Club.
Locy is currently the Donald W. Reynolds Professor of Legal Reporting in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Washington & Lee University.