Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Why is Josh Wolf in jail?

Josh Wolf, the San Francisco blogger jailed for refusing to give a federal grand jury the video outtakes of a demonstration, likely would be free today if his case had come before a state court.

That’s because California law, as tested and affirmed, explicitly grants journalists the right to withhold unpublished material from prosecutors. So, why is Josh in jail?

Because it’s a federal case, and federal law provides no equivalent protection to reporters who seek to shield their confidential sources and unpublished information from being used as investigative fodder by prosecutors.

That explains why the 24-year-old, self-styled chronicler of leftist politics was put behind bars, where he potentially could stay until next summer. But it doesn’t explain why this case is a federal case. Or why the feds are pursuing it so vigorously.

What we do know is that Josh is being held for contempt of court because he refused to give the feds the unpublished portions of video he took at an anarchist street demonstration in San Francisco in July, 2005.

In the seemingly pointless melee, a police officer unfortunately “suffered a fractured skull in a confrontation with a splinter group of marchers; several store windows were broken, and someone allegedly tried to set a police car on fire by sliding a mattress underneath and setting it ablaze,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

But what makes this comparatively prosaic civil disturbance a federal case? And why have federal prosecutors for the last six months been aggressively pursuing Josh, whose role, from all known evidence, appears to have been no greater than that of an anarchist groupie passively wielding a Camcorder?

Here’s how the Chronicle pieces it together:

Federal prosecutors are demanding the unpublished tapes because “they might contain evidence of attempted arson of a police cruiser – which Wolf says they do not. Trying to burn a police car would constitute a federal crime, federal authorities argued, because the Police Department receives money from Washington. Citing the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, federal prosecutors have never explained their interest in the possible burning of a police car, which local authorities typically would investigate.”

Interestingly, adds the Chronicle, “no local charges have ever been filed in connection with that incident.”

Unless there is more to this case than meets the eye – if so, what is it? – I can't understand why Josh is in jail.