A 911 for Journalists  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   October/November 2004

A 911 for Journalists   

When journalists face jail time for protecting sources or the government tries to keep public information off-limits, First Amendment crusader Lucy Dalglish is ready for battle.

By Jill Rosen
Jill Rosen is AJR's assistant managing editor     


When Vanessa Leggett was hauled into jail in 2001 for refusing to hand over to the police her notes for a true-crime book she was researching, she eventually became a media heroine, a symbol for press freedom in America. But not right away. At first no one seemed to care.

For one thing, she was a freelancer, working the story on her own--she had no news organization media attorney to back her up and bounce her out of the Texas prison. Desperate, she e-mailed the Committee to Protect Journalists, thinking they certainly sounded like what she needed. But no. They help reporters, the group explained, but those in life-or-death situations. Leggett was in trouble, but not their kind of trouble. (See "The Vanessa Leggett Saga," March 2002.)

Then she tried the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and its tireless leader, Lucy Dalglish. Soon thereafter, the world heard about Vanessa Leggett.

"From the moment I called them, they were there for me," says Leggett, who, when all was said and done, spent 168 days in jail, the most time ever served by a reporter protecting a source. "No one would have even known had Lucy not blown her horn and got support for me. I don't know if I otherwise would have even gotten out."

The horn Dalglish blew included pelting media organizations with releases, trying to band them together to stand up for Leggett en masse, speaking up for her cause on national news shows and filing court briefs.

"I was just sitting there in jail, just staring at a wall," Leggett remembers. "I had no idea she was working so consistently behind the scenes."

Dalglish, 45, the Reporters Committee's executive director since 2000, is a consistent force for the First Amendment both behind the scenes and in the forefront of the fray. In fact, even for casual news watchers, it was hard to miss her during this summer's spree of crises, holding forth about Time's Matthew Cooper on the brink of going to jail for not giving up his Valerie Plame sources, or the reporters refusing to testify in Wen Ho Lee's civil suit, or government's ever-tightening grip on public information. She was quoted in daily newspaper reports, featured on televised panels, questioned on radio talk shows.

In a column for the Sacramento Bee at the end of August, Dalglish began: "This has been a tough summer for journalists." And tough times for journalists mean busy ones for her.

Since September 11, it's been a rough ride for someone who considers it her job to clear barriers between journalists and information. This summer's spate of contempt threats only compounds what, for press freedom crusaders, has been something of a bad scene. The terrorist attacks emboldened and enabled the Bush administration to keep once-public information under wraps in the name of privacy and security.

"You saw government taking action to shut down courts, to shut doors," Dalglish says. "And the media act like they've been punched in the gut, wounded and laying in the road... By the time it got our attention, we'd lost a lot of access."

She says that those with a "natural predilection to secrecy" used 9/11 to great advantage. "It's just the nature of the beast," she says. "Government is always going to go too far, and it's up to other institutions to push it back. I just wish we'd been better organized off the bat."

Dan Christensen, a Miami Daily Business Review reporter, won the 2004 Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment Award for revealing that cases were being docketed secretly in Miami's U.S. District Court. Though Christensen broke the story of the closeted trials, it didn't get widespread attention until one Algerian-born man detained after 9/11 for overstaying his student visa appealed his secret Miami ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Reporters Committee stepped in at that point to lead a charge to make the case public. Christensen only wished he'd thought of the group when he first started digging into the story, when he was on his own.

"They obviously recognized the significance of it right away and put together a coalition of news organizations," Christensen says. Dalglish "was at the forefront of it... She was clearly the driving spirit behind what was happening. She was on top of every nuance of what was going on."

Andy Alexander, Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers and chairman of the American Society of Newspaper Editors' freedom of information committee, admires what he calls Dalglish's "early warning system," her ability to see trouble brewing and get right into the mix. He credits Dalglish with opening people's eyes to the secret trials and other threats. "She's one of the franchise players in journalism--she's that important to us."

Unlike Christensen, however, Alexander has known for a while what the Reporters Committee can do for a working journalist. As a reporter starting out in Dayton in the 1970s, he found himself in contempt of court for refusing to reveal sources for a story he was investigating about corruption in a federal program. "One of the first calls I made," he says, "was to the Reporters Committee."

Alexander's call was probably among the group's first. It was founded in 1970 by a band of journalists who realized that when reporters defending their First Amendment rights come under the gun, somebody needs to be there with legal backup. The case that prompted this was one in which a New York Times reporter was ordered to reveal his Black Panther sources.

The fledgling group that started in Washington, D.C., as a part-time operation has evolved into the go-to institution in matters of press freedom. Though the organization is still small--just eight full-time staffers based out of a Rosslyn, Virginia, office shared with the Student Press Law Center--it runs an informative Web site that includes Dalglish's blog, "Behind the Homefront," that chronicles access issues in the post-9/11 world; publishes a quarterly magazine and a host of reporters' guides; and helps hundreds of journalists out of quandaries each year, often through the group's 24-hour legal defense hotline. The committee is funded by donations and foundation grants.

Dalglish's career began auspiciously in sixth grade in North Dakota when her teacher chose her to be editor of the class paper. An editorial she wrote on pollution on the first day of school--she was against it--tipped the scale in her favor. She also wrote columns in favor of 18-year-olds having the vote, against the Vietnam War and--inexplicably, she says now--against women's lib. She also became the only kid she knows grounded for an editorial after disagreeing in print with her dad's stance that "Marcus Welby, MD" was off-limits at home though "Hawaii Five-0" was perfectly acceptable. When he told her not to air the family business in public, she retorted, "I have a First Amendment right to report anything I want."

Though she always thought she'd be a lawyer, an internship after college led her to a reporting job at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where she worked for seven years. In 1987 she was selected for a fellowship at Yale Law School. Afterward she returned to the Pioneer Press for a few more years, then decided to make her longstanding crush on the law official with a degree from Vanderbilt.

All those newsroom years made certain aspects of being a lawyer a bit hard to get used to. The cursing, for one, had to stop. But she no longer had to bite her tongue when it came to having an opinion. At Yale, she was a bit thrown when she was suddenly supposed to take sides. Like when Robert Bork was nominated as a Supreme Court justice, she remembers how one day she found TV crews massed outside the law school and someone thrust a mike in her face, wanting to know what she thought. She muttered something about being a first-year student and not knowing anything and being one of "you guys." "By the end of the year," she says. "I'd gotten over that."

With her law degree she returned to Minnesota to work at the Minneapolis firm of Dorsey & Whitney, where, she jokes, she was "a real pro bono rainmaker." In her five years there, though Dalglish wasn't exclusively working on media law, she handled cases concerning library censorship, libel, student press rights and prior review at a television station. She learned to love the terror of arguing in a courtroom, saying, "It gets your adrenalin going in the way only a breaking story does."

Though things were really starting to gel at the law firm, when the prospect of working for the Reporters Committee arose, she couldn't pass it up, despite the inevitable financial hit. "It was a dream job," she explains. "I get to work with journalists and get to have an opinion and get to be an advocate."

Tony Mauro, a longtime Supreme Court reporter now covering it for Legal Times and a member of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press steering committee, helped hire Dalglish in 2000. "Lucy's application came in and it was like she was born to this position," Mauro says, adding that in addition to sharing the search committee's ideals, Dalglish turned out to have a fundraising knack and a mediator's touch in smoothing out turf battles among journalism groups so that they could speak with one voice when it counted. She was also a hit with the Reporters Committee staff, encouraging parties--even showing up at the group's Halloween affair dressed as wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura, complete with a bald head, made so by chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer.

Though Dalglish and Reporters Committee supporters believe First Amendment protection is an ideal worth fighting for, many others, even some journalists, feel the cause is not so noble or, at the very least, not a given. A survey this year by the First Amendment Center in collaboration with AJR found that four in 10 Americans believe the press has too much freedom (see "Low Marks," August/September). And when the Reporters Committee initiated a petition drive in September to gather 10,000 journalists' signatures to show solidarity behind reporters found in contempt of court, though thousands signed up, a few protested on a media Web site that some journalists didn't deserve protection, that if they didn't reveal their sources they should just be tossed in jail.

When Dalglish sat on an August panel discussion about First Amendment issues, someone, lamenting excessive coverage of celebrity court cases like those of Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant, asked why they couldn't be tried in private. Dalglish responded: "That makes the hair on the back of my neck stand straight out. That just sends such chills down my spine. We don't lock up individuals in secret. We don't try them in secret. The whole reason our justice system works in this country is we have some sort of oversight."

Dalglish knows that not everyone gets what she's doing. And she also knows that some cases her committee takes up are easier to support than others. "The concept of reporter's privilege is sometimes difficult to wrap your head around," she says. "But the whole idea is you want to give whistleblowers the opportunity to come forth. The result is the public winds up getting more information rather than less."

Though swimming against the tide of public perception, not to mention the government, probably feels like a losing battle at times, surviving cancer (she was sick in 2001 and 2002) steeled Dalglish in the face of adversity. Since then, she says, "I'm much more upfront and--courageous is not the right word--it's you can't scare me, I've had cancer."

Though Dalglish's schedule is travel-heavy and appearance-packed, even when she was at her sickest, she kept at it. She missed three days for surgery, a few for each chemo treatment, adding up to a total of 14. In the midst of all of it came Vanessa Leggett.

While Leggett passed days and days in jail, an encouraging letter from Dalglish kept her spirits up. One morning, Leggett remembers, she was in the prison rec room watching TV and they started talking about her case on "Good Morning America." One guy was "just totally disparaging me," she says, "calling me 'a groupie,' 'a wannabe.' All this emotion was just bottling up inside of me and then, like a guardian angel, Lucy just appeared on the screen. She was just so poised and self-possessed. She just gutted what he had to say. I almost cried."

Leggett didn't know then that just before Dalglish appeared on "GMA," she'd had a round of chemo. Though on the show she looked like she had long brown hair, that was just a wig. She was already bald by then. "She had just had her insides turned out but she was so on it you would never know," Leggett says.

Even now, long out of jail and well on her way to turning those notes she fought to protect into a book, Leggett feels indebted not only to Dalglish but to her organization. "Someone once called it 911 for journalists, and that's so true," she says. "I felt so alone and isolated until I knew I had their support."

Jill Rosen is AJR's assistant managing editor.

###