A Fox News reporter who covered material from a confidential source is being charged with contempt for not disclosing the source’s identity despite a court order for her to do so.
In August of last year, Catherine Herridge—a reporter for CBS News now—got an order to reveal the identity and motivation of the person who had provided information regarding an FBI inquiry involving a Chinese scientist.
However, attorneys for scientist Yanping Chen claimed in a recent filing that Ms. Herridge “refused to answer questions regarding the identity of her confidential source(s) and other aspects of her reporting process and editorial decision-making” during a deposition held after the injunction was handed down.
They requested that Ms. Herridge be held in contempt of court, which is a crime that carries a potential jail sentence.
The order was issued on October 27 by U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper, who threatened to hold Ms. Herridge in contempt if she failed to produce the material.
“With contempt proceedings now teed up, one of two outcomes appears likely: either Herridge will be held in contempt in the near future and can immediately appeal that order, or, as sometimes occurs in these cases, the sources may release Herridge from the privilege rather than watch her undergo the consequences of contempt,” Judge Cooper, appointed under President Barack Obama, wrote in a ruling.
He was turning down Ms. Herridge’s plea to have his previous denial of a stay of proceedings while an appeal was pending reviewed.
An inquiry for comments was not answered by Ms. Herridge’s attorneys. Inquiries have not received a response from Fox News or CBS News.
Ms. Herridge has not responded to inquiries about the situation, and her September deposition has not been made public.
The attorneys for Ms. Herridge had claimed that the judge had implied in his August decision that he believed he had to impose contempt prior to an appeal, but that in reality, the court might choose to certify an appeal before a contempt order was issued.
“The court should exercise its discretion to avoid forcing Ms. Herridge to suffer a contempt sanction as the price for securing review of her First Amendment rights,” they said.
Judge Cooper stated that although he was aware of his discretion, he was using it to deny Ms. Herridge’s request since it is customary to postpone appeal procedures until after a party has disobeyed a ruling and been found in contempt.
“The court thus makes clear what may have been murky before: Exercising its discretion, the court concludes that certification is not warranted in this case because Herridge can appeal a subsequent contempt order,” Judge Cooper said.
The lawsuit was sparked by three Fox News stories that first surfaced in 2017 and revealed the FBI had looked into Ms. Chen, a naturalized American citizen who created and owned a university that some US military members attended. In 2016, Ms. Chen received word that she would not be facing any charges.
In 2018, the Department of Defense made the decision to no longer assist in covering military personnel’ university fees. Ms. Chen sued the FBI, claiming that Ms. Herridge had received the previously confidential information from the FBI or other government agencies.
Ms. Chen’s “need for the requested evidence overcomes Herridge’s qualified First Amendment privilege,” according to Judge Cooper.
Several press freedom organizations have criticized the decisions.
“Requiring reporters to face contempt before they can appeal may discourage them from insisting on their First Amendment right to protect confidential sources by taking their objection to a higher court,” Caitlin Vogus, deputy director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, wrote in a recent blog post.
“Journalists are already under great pressure any time they face a legal demand to reveal a confidential source or other newsgathering material. If they can’t appeal an order requiring them to name a source without facing a potentially large fine or long jail sentence, some may think twice about continuing to resist,” Ms. Vogus added.