A Fox News reporter is being charged with contempt for failing to disclose the identity of a confidential source she covered despite a court order to do so.
Catherine Herridge, who is now a reporter for CBS News, received an order in August of last year to disclose the identity and motivation of the individual who had supplied information pertaining to an FBI investigation concerning a Chinese scientist.
In contrast, attorneys for scientist Yanping Chen asserted in a recent filing that during a post-injunction deposition, Ms. Herridge “refused to answer questions regarding the identity of her confidential source(s) and other aspects of her reporting process and editorial decision-making.”
They petitioned for Ms. Herridge to be charged with contempt of court, an offense punishable by up to one year in prison.
U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper issued the order on October 27 and threatened to find Ms. Herridge in contempt if she did not provide the requested materials.
“With contempt proceedings now teed up, one of two outcomes appears likely: either Herridge will be held in contempt in the near future and can immediately appeal that order, or, as sometimes occurs in these cases, the sources may release Herridge from the privilege rather than watch her undergo the consequences of contempt,” Judge Cooper, appointed under President Barack Obama, wrote in a ruling.
Ms. Herridge requested that his prior denial of a stay of proceedings during the pendency of an appeal be reconsidered; however, he declined this request.
A request for commentary was not received in response from the attorneys representing Ms. Herridge. The media outlets Fox News and CBS News have not responded to inquiries.
Regarding the matter, Ms. Herridge has not provided any responses to inquiries, and the transcript of her September deposition remains confidential.
Ms. Herridge’s attorneys had asserted that the judge had inferred in his August decision that he was obligated to impose contempt prior to the filing of an appeal, when in fact the court could certify an appeal prior to the issuance of a contempt order.
“The court should exercise its discretion to avoid forcing Ms. Herridge to suffer a contempt sanction as the price for securing review of her First Amendment rights,” they said.
Judge Cooper explained that he exercised his discretion to deny Ms. Herridge’s request despite being cognizant of it, because it is customary to delay appeal procedures until a party has been found in contempt for disobeying a ruling.
“The court thus makes clear what may have been murky before: Exercising its discretion, the court concludes that certification is not warranted in this case because Herridge can appeal a subsequent contempt order,” Judge Cooper said.
The lawsuit was instigated by three Fox News articles that initially surfaced in 2017 and disclosed that the FBI had conducted an investigation into Ms. Chen, a naturalized American citizen who established and owned a university attended by certain members of the United States military. Ms. Chen was informed in 2016 that she would not be prosecuted on any charges.
The Department of Defense ceased providing financial assistance to fund the university expenses of military personnel in 2018. Ms. Chen filed a lawsuit against the FBI, alleging that Ms. Herridge had obtained the formerly classified information under duress from the FBI or another government agency.
Ms. Chen’s “need for the requested evidence overcomes Herridge’s qualified First Amendment privilege,” according to Judge Cooper.
Several press freedom organizations have criticized the decisions.
“Requiring reporters to face contempt before they can appeal may discourage them from insisting on their First Amendment right to protect confidential sources by taking their objection to a higher court,” Caitlin Vogus, deputy director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, wrote in a recent blog post.
“Journalists are already under great pressure any time they face a legal demand to reveal a confidential source or other newsgathering material. If they can’t appeal an order requiring them to name a source without facing a potentially large fine or long jail sentence, some may think twice about continuing to resist,” Ms. Vogus added.