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Board approves $30K grant

By Billy O'Keefe

By Kristin Longley
Michigan State University
Continuing its tradition of support for First Amendment rights, SPJ on Wednesday awarded a jailed independent journalist a $30,000 grant — the largest ever given by SPJ.
Freelancer Joshua Wolf was sent to a California federal prison Aug. 1 after refusing to turn over to government officials his unpublished footage of a violent protest. The SPJ grant, approved by the National Board, will help pay Wolf’s legal expenses, which his lawyers have agreed to cap at $60,000.
“We have to make a stand someplace as the government attempts over and over to change the role of journalists as independent observers to arms of law enforcement,” said SPJ President Dave Carlson, sporting a “Free Josh” button. “If we allow this to happen the public will be hurt, our democracy will be hurt because people will be less inclined to cooperate with reporters.
“We will all end up less informed and less able to practice self-government.”
SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund, which gave Wolf $1,000 earlier this year, is an account that can provide journalists with legal or direct assistance.
Wolf’s grant is more than double the next highest amount given. In 2001, SPJ awarded a $12,500 grant to Vanessa Leggett, a freelance author jailed for refusing to give her notes to a federal grand jury investigating a murder.
“It’s a great statement that we as journalists are not going to stand for other journalists being jailed for doing their jobs,” said Dave Aeikens, SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund chairman. “It sends a strong message, and we want it to be heard loud and clear.”
Aeikens said Wolf’s situation brings to light a larger issue: the need for a federal shield law. With other court cases involving journalists that have the potential to end up like Wolf’s, Aeikens said a law that limits the circumstances in which journalists are compelled to relinquish sources, unedited footage or notes is necessary.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable for our government to imprison journalists for information,” Aeikens said. “That’s not our role.”
Wolf shot footage of a G8 protest in San Francisco last summer. During the protest, a police car was vandalized and a police officer’s skull fractured.
The federal government has subpoenaed Wolf’s footage, but he has refused to turn it over. He was found in contempt of court Aug. 1 and sent to a federal prison in Dublin, Calif., where he could remain until July, when the grand jury term expires.
Wolf’s mother, Elizabeth Wolf-Spada, said in an e-mail that she’s grateful for the grant.
“Now we can concentrate any other money on his expenses in jail, rent, etc.” she wrote, adding that any extra money could be donated to other journalists’ cases.
On Wolf’s Web site, www.joshwolf.net, she thanks “all the generous and concerned people” who have supported Wolf’s cause.
“He is doing well and maintaining a positive spirit,” she wrote Tuesday. “He is becoming very concerned about the injustice he sees in the justice system.”