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Catherine Herridge is on the brink of being held in contempt of court.
In a late-September deposition, the 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 court filing made public Tuesday. Her refusal to disclose the source(s) was in direct defiance of an alarming court order issued earlier this year, by which Herridge’s camp will surely appeal, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The order from Cooper came as a result of a lawsuit filed 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 probe. Chen has alleged that federal authorities improperly leaked information about her, violating the Privacy Act.
In an effort to prove her case, Chen subpoenaed Herridge and Fox News, with the hope of unmasking the source(s) for the stories. Fox News and Herridge aggressively fought the move, arguing that Cooper should quash the subpoenas because of First Amendment protections afforded to the press. But Cooper disagreed and ordered otherwise, stating that “Chen’s need for the requested evidence overcomes Herridge’s qualified First Amendment privilege in this case.”
That set the stage for a Sept. 26 deposition of Herridge, when the veteran journalist was repeatedly asked about how she obtained the information for her 2017 stories. Herridge politely declined to answer dozens of such questions.
“Will you tell me who that source was?” a lawyer for plaintiff Chen asked.
“Objection; privilege,” Herridge’s lawyer exclaimed.
“Are you going to decline to answer that question?” Chen’s lawyer asked.
“Respectfully, yes,” Herridge answered.
And so it went throughout the duration of the deposition.
Herridge’s refusal to reveal her source(s) did not sit well with Chen. In a filing made public Tuesday, Chen’s camp formally asked the court to reprimand her.
“Without consequences, Herridge has no reason to comply with the Court’s order. Accordingly, Dr. Chen requests both compensatory sanctions awarded to her and a continuing, coercive financial sanction, payable to the Court, to compel Herridge to comply with the Order,” the motion from Chen said. “There being clear and convincing evidence of Herridge’s defiance of the August 1, 2023 Order and no valid cause for such defiance, a finding of contempt should issue and sanctions should be imposed.”
The motion to hold Herridge in contempt and levy stiff financial penalties on her — all for declining 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 disclose confidential sources,” a Fox News spokesperson said in a statement to me.
“We are fully supportive of Catherine Herridge’s position in this case. No journalist should be punished for maintaining a source’s confidentiality,” a CBS News spokesperson said in a separate statement. “This motion for contempt should be concerning to 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 headed also prompted alarm from independent third parties. Floyd Abrams, the legendary First Amendment attorney of Pentagon Papers fame, called the judicial order “deeply troubling.”
“Any such order not only impairs the ability of the journalist who has been ordered to reveal the identity of her confidential sources but makes it more difficult for all journalists to gather information about newsworthy topics,” Abrams told me. “The Department of Justice issued new Guidelines in 2021 that significantly limited its ability to seek the identification of confidential sources. We would all be better served if that sort of near-total bar were applied to all cases in which journalist’s sources were sought.”
To Abrams’ point, Herridge’s case has renewed calls for Congress to pass legislation solidifying federal protections for journalists. In June, a bipartisan group of lawmakers reintroduced the Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying Act, or as it is more commonly known, the PRESS Act. The legislation would offer important safeguards to journalists, including preventing the government from compelling reporters to disclose their sources.
“Chen’s outrageous demands for sanctions show exactly why contempt orders in reporter’s privilege cases chill journalism. Many reporters facing the large and escalating sanctions Chen asks the court to impose would be deterred from standing up to an unconstitutional order requiring them to reveal their confidential sources,” Caitlin Vogus, deputy director of advocacy at Freedom of the Press Foundation, told me Tuesday.
“Chen’s request that Herridge be personally on the hook for the sanctions is especially disturbing,” Vogus added. “It will make other reporters who can’t afford a legal fight let alone harsh sanctions think twice about promising sources confidentiality. That will mean that fewer whistleblowers come forward to speak to the press and less newsworthy information is revealed to the public.”
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