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Judge gives protest videographer reprieve

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Judge gives protest videographer reprieve


Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer


Friday, July 21, 2006


A freelance journalist who has refused to hand over videos he shot at a San Francisco protest to a federal grand jury stayed out of jail Thursday, at least temporarily.


U.S. District Judge William Alsup asked a government lawyer whether prosecutors would consider granting immunity to the journalist as a way of inducing him to give the tapes to the grand jury, which is looking into whether demonstrators at the protest broke federal laws.


Alsup's decision to ask for further arguments and resume the hearing Aug. 1 gave a reprieve to Josh Wolf, who could be jailed until next July, when the grand jury's term expires, if he does not turn over the videos.


The grand jury is looking into a July 2005 demonstration in the Mission District organized by anarchists against the Group of Eight international economic conference in Scotland. A police car was set on fire during a clash between officers and demonstrators. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Finigan said the vandalism could be a federal crime because the Police Department receives federal funds.


Wolf, 24, a freelancer who focuses on political dissidents, shot videos of the demonstration. Portions were shown on television stations, including footage of the police car.


The grand jury has demanded the rest of the videos, and Wolf has refused, claiming a journalist's right to withhold unpublished material from the government. That right is recognized by California law but not by federal law, which prevails in federal court.


Alsup ordered Wolf last month to turn over the videos or face jail for contempt of court. Wolf was in the grand jury room later that day, insisting on his right to remain silent, when a prosecutor abruptly withdrew his subpoena.


Prosecutors renewed the request for the film last week, but Alsup was more receptive to defense arguments at Thursday's hearing in San Francisco.


The judge said he had tentatively concluded that Wolf had the right to remain silent and withhold evidence to avoid selfincrimination. Finigan said he saw no danger that Wolf could incriminate himself, but the judge said Wolf might fear that authorities would accuse him of aiding lawbreakers at the protest by encouraging them. "I don't think that's fanciful, Alsup told the prosecutor.


He suggested that Finigan ask his superiors to authorize an offer of immunity to Wolf, which would protect the journalist from being prosecuted for any information he provided to the grand jury but would eliminate one of his defenses to contempt of court. Wolf declined to say what he would do if granted immunity.


Alsup denied a request by Wolf's lawyer, Jose Luis Fuentes, to transfer the case to the judge who is considering the government's attempt to require two Chronicle reporters to identify their sources of closed-door grand jury testimony about steroids in sports.


The judge was also skeptical of Fuentes' argument that Wolf should be let off the hook because the government had failed to show compliance with Justice Department guidelines, which require prosecutors to pursue every alternative and secure authorization from the attorney general before obtaining a subpoena against a journalist.


Alsup said the guidelines were not legally binding and asked why they should be allowed to "interfere with the wheels of justice, the grand jury getting the information they need. But he asked Finigan to report back on whether the government had followed the guidelines in this case.


E-mail Bob Egelko at begelko@sfchronicle.com.

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