Catherine Herridge speaking at a hearing of the House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Limited Government at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa via AP Images)

The Reporter Fighting for America’s Free Press

Catherine Herridge could face a daily $800 fine for refusing to give up her sources. This week, she went to Congress to defend the First Amendment.

By The Free Press

April 12, 2024

As the old saying goes, a journalist is only as good as her sources. In 2024, it’s not just a cliché; it’s a warning. The right of reporters to protect the officials and whistleblowers who take great risks to get information to the public is now in jeopardy. 

At the center of this fight is Catherine Herridge, one of the most respected national security reporters in Washington. In February, she was abruptly fired from CBS News during a round of layoffs. This was strange considering that Herridge is a scoop-getter. She broke the first story on how al-Qaeda’s English-language recruiter, Anwar al-Awlaki, was in contact with the 9/11 hijackers, and that Hunter Biden’s laptop was authentic and in the custody of the FBI. 

What made it even more alarming was that her notes and files, which contained information on her sources, were seized by her former employer. CBS even locked her out of her own office. She eventually retrieved her personal property, but only after enlisting the help of her union.

But just as one problem was resolved, Herridge faced another threat. In a separate civil lawsuit, a federal judge found her in contempt of court for refusing to disclose her sources in her investigation into a taxpayer-funded school in Virginia run by a woman with alleged links to the Chinese military.

In both cases, Herridge’s promise to protect her sources was threatened. In both cases, she refused to break that promise. 

Yesterday, Herridge testified in favor of a new bill that would prohibit the federal government from compelling journalists to disclose information on their sources. Here is her testimony before the House, championing the Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying—or PRESS—Act, in a hearing that was titled “Fighting for a Free Press.” 

Good morning, Chairman Jordan, Ranking Member Nadler, Chairman Roy, and Ranking Member Scanlon and members of the Subcommittee. I am here today with a deep sense of gratitude and humility. I appreciate the subcommittee taking the time to focus again on the importance of protecting reporters’ sources and the vital safeguards provided by the PRESS Act.

As you know, in February, I was held in contempt of court for refusing to disclose my confidential reporting sources on a national security story. I think my current situation can help put the importance of the PRESS Act into context.

One of our children recently asked me if I would go to jail, if we would lose our house, and if we would lose our family savings to protect my reporting sources. I wanted to answer that, in this country, where we say we value democracy and the role of a vibrant and free press, it was impossible. But I couldn’t offer that assurance.

The bipartisan PRESS Act, which came out of this House committee, would put an end to the sort of legal jeopardy that I have experienced firsthand in the federal courts. And without the legislation, more journalists will run the uncertainty of the contempt gauntlet in the future. This legislation will provide protections for every journalist in the United States, now and for the next generation.

The legislation provides strong protections—at the federal level—for reporters and their sources. It would block litigants and the federal government from prying into a reporter’s files, except when there is an imminent threat of violence, including terrorism, and in defamation cases. At the state level, similar rules are already in place to protect press freedom. It is my sincere hope that the passage of the PRESS Act will provide similar protections at the federal level. I hope that I am the last journalist who has to spend two years or more in federal court protecting their confidential sources.

I began my career with ABC News in London 37 years ago. Since then I have focused on national security and intelligence reporting at Fox News and more recently with CBS News, where I was a senior investigative reporter.

My current situation arises from a Privacy Act lawsuit. I am only a witness in this case. It is not common for these cases to reach the stage of holding a reporter in contempt, but when such cases happen, they have profound consequences, impacting every journalist in the United States.

Forcing a reporter to disclose confidential sources would have a crippling effect on investigative journalism, because without reliable assurances of confidentiality, sources will not come forward. The First Amendment provides protections for the press because an informed electorate is at the foundation of our democracy.

If confidential sources are not protected, I fear investigative journalism is dead. Each day, I feel the weight of this responsibility.

As you know, I was held in contempt of court for upholding the basic journalistic principle of maintaining the pledge of confidentiality to my sources. I have complete respect for the district court and the judicial process and I am not here to litigate the merits of that case. It will play out before the appellate court in Washington, D.C.

But the fact that I have been fighting in the courts for two years, and that I am now potentially facing crippling fines of $800 a day to protect my reporting sources, underscores the vital importance of the PRESS Act.

When you go through major life events, as I have in recent weeks, losing your job, your health insurance, having your reporting files seized by your former employer, and being held in contempt of court, it gives you clarity. 

The First Amendment, the protection of confidential sources, and a free press are my guiding principles. They are my North Star. When I was laid off in February, an incident reinforced in my mind the importance of protecting confidential sources. CBS News locked me out of the building and seized hundreds of pages of my reporting files, including confidential source information. Multiple sources said they were concerned that by working with me to expose government corruption and misconduct, they would be identified and exposed.

I pushed back, and with the public support of my union, SAG-AFTRA, the records were returned. CBS News’ decision to seize my reporting records crossed a red line that I believe should never be crossed by any media organization.

The litigation, and being held in contempt, have taken a toll on me and my career. This is not a battle you can fight alone. I am grateful for the support of fellow journalists and multiple First Amendment organizations including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Press Freedom Foundation, the Coalition for Women in Journalism, the Knight First Amendment Institute, the Society of Professional Journalists as well as the Columbia Journalism School.

I have also been fortunate to have support from my former employer as I continue in this fight. Not many journalists could count on a former employer, in this case Fox News, to support a costly and vigorous defense of the First Amendment. That is why the PRESS Act comes at the right time, when independent journalism and news platforms are expanding opportunities for reporting diverse voices that strengthen democracy.

I know I join many journalists who are encouraged by the recent comments of the Senate Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer, who said he hopes to have the legislation through the Senate and onto the president’s desk this year.

I deeply appreciate the Committee taking the time to focus attention on the PRESS Act, and hope this hearing will encourage action in the Senate.

Watch The Free Press’s Rupa Subramanya go to Washington to defend free speech here.

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