A former Fox News reporter was ordered by a federal judge to reveal the identity of a confidential source, a highly unusual case of a plaintiff’s right to legal discovery being placed above the First Amendment protections of a journalist.
The ruling, issued by Judge Christopher Cooper of the US District Court for the District of Columbia, ordered now-CBS News senior correspondent Catherine Herridge to disclose her source in depositions. The reporting was for a series of 2017 articles about a Chinese-American scientist, who subsequently sued the U.S. government for privacy invasion; Herridge was a staff reporter for Fox News when the stories were published.
The order corresponded to a lawsuit filed by Yanping Chen against the FBI and other federal investigative agencies, alleging that Chen’s privacy was violated when Herridge reported that the scientist was the subject of a federal counterintelligence investigation. Chen says the information was improperly leaked by federal authorities, but has been unable to unable them – until a last-ditch legal effort succeeded.
According to Cooper, Herridge’s reporting for Fox News on Chen included “snippets of her immigration forms, a summary of an FBI interview with her daughter, and personal photographs of her and her husband.” Fox News did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
The network and Herridge fought the subpoenas, claiming years of precedent that give broad First Amendment protections to the American press when it comes to anonymous sourcing.
However, on Tuesday Cooper sided with Chen.
“The Court recognizes both the vital importance of a free press and the critical role that confidential sources play in the work of investigative journalists like Herridge,” said Cooper wrote. “But applying the binding case law of this Circuit, the Court concludes that Chen’s need for the requested evidence overcomes Herridge’s qualified First Amendment privilege in this case.”
Cooper has only required Fox News and Herridge to be deposed, but it remains unclear whether they will comply with the court order. Revealing the anonymous individual used within the 2017 story series would set a controversial precedent for the future of journalism and sourcing.
Herridge and Fox News are both being represented by Patrick Philbin, who served as former President Donald Trump’s deputy White House counsel. Cooper was appointed to the bench by former President Barack Obama.
The case has sent shockwaves through the media industry, renewing calls for Congress to pass legislation that would provide further federal protection to journalists. The Protect Reporters from Exploitive State Spying Act (PRESS ACT), was reintroduced by a bipartisan group of legislators in June. This would create better safeguards for the press under U.S. law.
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