Vanessa Leggett to receive 2002 PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
New York, NY, April 11, 2002—PEN American Center today named Vanessa Leggett, the freelance writer who was jailed in a federal detention center in Texas for 168 days for refusing to bow to a sweeping subpoena of confidential source materials, as the recipient of this year’s prestigious PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award. Praised by this year’s panel of judges as a powerful example of personal conviction and courage in the face of the most extreme pressure and a hero in the effort to preserve investigative freedom for writers and journalists in the U.S., Ms. Leggett will receive the $25,000 prize at PEN’s annual Gala on April 24, 2002 at the Pierre Hotel in New York City.
For the past five years, Vanessa Leggett has been working on a non-fiction book about the killing of Houston socialite Doris Angleton, who was found shot to death in April 1997. Mrs. Angleton’s millionaire husband, Robert, was accused of paying his brother, Roger, to kill his wife. Both brothers were charged with capital murder. In the course of her research, Leggett conducted a series of prison interviews with Roger Angleton, who subsequently committed suicide. She turned over tapes of those interviews to a grand jury. But after Robert Angleton was acquitted in state court, a federal investigation into his activities was launched, and a federal grand jury subpoenaed all of Leggett’s tape-recorded conversations with anyone she had interviewed about the Angleton case. She refused, arguing that a reporter’s privilege protected her from being forced to disclose confidential sources. On July 6, U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon ruled that the Fifth Circuit “does not recognize such a privilege as protecting a journalist from divulging confidential or nonconfidential information in a criminal case.” Leggett was ruled in contempt and on July 20 was ordered imprisoned without bail for 18 months or until termination of the grand jury.
Leggett was released on January 4, 2002, when the federal grand jury completed its term. Her 168 days in a federal detention center is by far the longest jail term in U.S. history for a journalist who has refused to turn over confidential work product, shattering the old mark of 46 days for a Los Angeles Herald-Examiner reporter who refused to disclose his source for material relating to the Charles Manson trial in 1972. Two days before she was released, Leggett’s attorney appealed her case to the U.S. Supreme Court. That appeal is still pending, though her release makes it less likely the case will be heard. Meanwhile, a federal indictment has been returned against Robert Angleton, creating the possibility that Leggett could be called to testify at his trial. If she is and once again declines to divulge confidential information, she could be returned to prison.
“Vanessa Leggett has certainly suffered in defense of one of the central pillars of a free press: the idea that the journalist’s role in informing the public is important enough to be sustained even against the need to secure evidence in the investigation of crime,” said K. Anthony Appiah, Chair of PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Committee and one of this year’s PEN/Newman’s Own judges. “People will disagree about how these two legitimate interests should be balanced when they conflict. I was convinced by the evidence that in this case Vanessa Leggett’s sense of where the balance lay was the right one and I am humbled by the lengths to which she was willing to go once she had made that principled decision.”
“Vanessa Leggett is already a hero to journalists,” added Larry Siems, Director of Freedom to Write and International Programs at PEN American Center. “But in awarding her this year’s PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award, PEN hopes to repay in part the debt all writers owe her for standing up for the right of any individual to act in the public interest and gather information to present to the public without undue pressure from government and law enforcement agencies. That she fought her battle without the backing of a newspaper or media organization is especially inspiring, given the weight of the tools that were brought to bear against her.”
This is the tenth anniversary of the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award, which was established by actor Paul Newman and author A. E. Hotchner to honor a U.S. resident who has fought courageously, despite adversity, to safeguard the First Amendment right to freedom of expression as it applies to the written word. Vanessa Leggett was nominated by Lucy Dalglish, Executive Director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The judges for the 2002 award were K. Anthony Appiah, Chair of PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Committee and the Charles H. Carswell Professor of Afro-American Studies and of Philosophy at Harvard University; Marjorie Heins, Director of the Free Expression Policy Project; Lance Liebman, William S. Beinecke Professor of Law at Columbia Law School; and Bill Maher, host of Politically Incorrect.
Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660, ext. 105, [email protected]