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Catherine Herridge is about to be held in contempt of court.
In a statement in late September, CBS News’ senior investigative correspondent declined to reveal her source(s) for a series of 2017 stories she reported on during her time at Fox News, according to a statement released Tuesday Court file shows. Their refusal to disclose the source(s) was a direct contradiction of an alarming court order Published at the beginning of the yearwhich Herridge’s camp will surely appeal, to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Cooper’s order was the result of a lawsuit brought by Chinese-American scientist Yanping Chen against the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Citing documents reviewed by Fox News, Herridge reported that Chen was the subject of a federal investigation. Chen has alleged that federal authorities unlawfully shared information about her in violation of privacy law.
To prove her case, Chen subpoenaed Herridge and Fox News in hopes of uncovering the source(s) for the stories. Fox News and Herridge aggressively fought the move, arguing that Cooper should rescind the subpoenas because press protections are afforded by the First Amendment. But Cooper disagreed and ordered otherwise, stating that “Chen’s need for the requested evidence in this case overrides Herridge’s qualified First Amendment privilege.”
This set the stage for a statement from Herridge on September 26, when the veteran journalist was repeatedly asked how she got the information for her 2017 stories. Herridge politely declined to answer dozens of such questions.
“Would you tell me who that source was?” a lawyer for plaintiff Chen asked.
“Objection; Privilege,” Herridge’s lawyer exclaimed.
“Are you going to refuse to answer this question?” asked Chen’s lawyer.
“With all due respect, yes,” Herridge replied.
And so it continued throughout the duration of the statement.
Herridge’s refusal to reveal her source(s) did not please Chen. In a filing released Tuesday, Chen’s camp formally asked the court to censure her.
“Without consequences, Herridge has no reason to comply with the court’s order. Accordingly, Dr. Chen both compensatory sanctions awarded to her and a continuing financial penalty to be paid to the court to compel Herridge to comply with the order,” Chen’s motion states. “As there is clear and convincing evidence of Herridge’s disregard of the August 1, 2023 order and there is no good reason for such disregard, a finding of contempt should be made and sanctions imposed.”
The motion to hold Herridge in contempt and impose hefty fines on her—all for refusing to violate the fundamental journalistic principle of protecting source identity—led to a swift show of support for her from both CBS News and Fox News.
“Fox News supports Ms. Herridge’s position in this case. “Journalists should not be forced to reveal confidential sources,” a Fox News spokesperson said in a statement to me.
“We fully support Catherine Herridge’s position in this case. No journalist should be penalized for maintaining the confidentiality of a source,” a CBS News spokesperson said in a separate statement. “This contempt motion should concern all Americans who value the role of the free press in our democracy and understand that reliance on confidential sources is critical to the mission of journalism.”
The direction the court is taking also raised alarm among independent third parties. Floyd Abrams, the legendary First Amendment lawyer behind the Pentagon Papers, called the court order “deeply disturbing.”
“Any such order not only impairs the ability of the journalist ordered to reveal the identities of her confidential sources, but also makes it more difficult for all journalists to gather information on current issues,” Abrams told me. “The Department of Justice issued new guidelines in 2021 that significantly limited its ability to seek identification of confidential sources. We would all be better served if this near-total hurdle were applied to all cases seeking journalists’ sources.”
For Abrams, Herridge’s case has renewed calls for Congress to pass legislation that solidifies federal protections for journalists. In June, a bipartisan group of lawmakers reintroduced the Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying Act, or more commonly known as the PRESS Act. The legislation would provide journalists with important protections, including preventing the government from forcing reporters to disclose their sources.
“Chen’s outrageous calls for sanctions demonstrate exactly why contempt orders in reporter privilege cases are chilling journalism. “Many reporters facing the broad and escalating sanctions Chen is seeking from the court would be deterred from defying an unconstitutional order requiring them to disclose their confidential sources,” Caitlin Vogus, deputy director of advocacy, told me at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, on Tuesday.
“Chen’s request that Herridge be personally responsible for the sanctions is particularly troubling,” Vogus added. “It will make other reporters who can’t afford litigation, let alone tough sanctions, think twice about promising confidentiality to their sources.” That means fewer whistleblowers will come forward to speak to the press, and that less up-to-date information is made available to the public.”
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