Standoff over Video Ends with Blogger's Release

Blogger Josh Wolf is free after 226 days in federal prison. He had refused to give up videotape of a violent July 2005 San Francisco protest, citing First Amendment protections. After making a deal with prosecutors, he declares victory.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We have an update this morning on the story of a San Francisco videographer and blogger who went to federal prison to protect his outtakes. Not everybody agrees that Josh Wolf is a real journalist but he definitely did some real time for refusing to comply with a grand jury subpoena - 226 days to be exact.

Yesterday, Mr. Wolf walked out of prison a free man, and the videotape that got him into trouble is available for everybody to see.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

(Soundbite of cheering)

RICHARD GONZALES: A jubilant Josh Wolf, looking more like a college sophomore than a federal inmate, bounded up the steps of city hall to describe his ordeal before a bank of cameras and dozens of supporters.

Mr. JOSH WOLF (Blogger): Any questions. I just heard how do I feel. I feel really good to be back home, back in San Francisco. It's nice to be here. Thank you.

GONZALES: Wolf's problems with federal authorities began in July of 2005. The 24-year-old videotaped an anarchist protest during the G8 summit. He posted some of the footage on his Web site and he sold other material to local TV stations. Here's some of the sound from that video.

Unidentified Group: Community (Unintelligible). Build the community, break the feds.

GONZALES: The footage is rough, unedited and mostly shot at night when it's difficult to make out everything that's going on. Still you can see young protestors marching down the street, dragging newspaper racks into intersections to block traffic and the police subduing some of the marchers.

During this protest, a San Francisco police officer was severely injured and a police cruiser was set on fire. Prosecutors decided burning the police car was a federal crime because the cruiser was purchased with government money. So they demanded Wolf's testimony and his videotape outtakes - the portions he hadn't published.

Wolf refused to cooperate, citing First Amendment protections as a journalist. But that didn't do him much good, because unlike California and other states where journalists have legal protections to keep sources private, there is no federal shield law for reporters. Besides, the feds argued, Wolf wasn't a legitimate journalist.

Mr. WOLF: I think that once the government decided to pursue this, that even had I worked for ABC, CBS, Fox, et cetera, that it still would have resulted in the same way. Because there's no protections for news gatherers in the federal grand jury context, that's the crux of this entire matter.

GONZALES: But after seven and a half months in prison, Wolf struck a deal with federal prosecutors. He turned over his video to the feds while simultaneously posting it on his Web site so that the public could see what he had maintained all along, that his video contained no evidence of a crime. And Wolf denied under oath any knowledge of the violent incidents of the July 2005 protests. In exchange, prosecutors dropped their demands that he appear before a grand jury.

Wolf's attorney, Jim Wheaton, of the First Amendment Project says it was a deal the feds could've had six months ago.

Mr. JIM WHEATON (Attorney, First Amendment Project): It's Josh's perspective that this case has never really been about the video because there was nothing on there that was of interest to anybody. That's always been a wedge to try to get him into a grand jury to start testifying about who was at the demonstration and to use him as a police informant. And that's something a journalist can never be.

GONZALES: U.S. Attorney Scott Schools did not comment except to issue a statement, saying that Wolf had complied with the grand jury subpoena by producing the responsive materials in his possession to the government and by answering questions. As for Wolf, he says there's more blogging in his immediate future, plus he plans to campaign for a federal shield law.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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