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Judge holds veteran journalist Catherine Herridge in civil contempt for refusing to divulge source

WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Thursday held veteran investigative journalist Catherine Herridge in civil contempt for refusing to reveal her source for a series of Fox News stories about a Chinese-American scientist who was investigated by the FBI but never charged.

U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper in Washington imposed a fine of $800 per day until Herridge complies, but the fine will not take effect immediately to give her time to appeal.

Cooper wrote that he recognizes “the paramount importance of a free press in our society” and the crucial role of confidential sources in investigative journalism. But the judge said the court “also has its own role to play in enforcing the law and protecting judicial authority. .”

“Herridge and many of her colleagues in the journalism community may disagree with that decision and prefer that a different balance be struck, but she should not be allowed to defy a federal court order with impunity to ignore them,” wrote Cooper, who was nominated by the court. former President Barack Obama.

An attorney for Herridge, Patrick Philbin, declined to comment. Representatives for CBS and Fox News did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

The source is being sought by Yanpin Chen, who has sued the government for leaking details of the federal investigation into statements she made on immigration forms related to work on a Chinese astronaut program.

Herridge, who was recently fired by CBS News, published an investigative series for Fox News in 2017 that examined Chen’s ties to the Chinese military and raised questions about whether the scientist used a professional school she founded in Virginia to Chinese government help information about US military personnel.

The stories were based on what her lawyers said were items leaked from the investigation, including excerpts from an FBI document summarizing an interview conducted during the investigation, personal photographs and information from her immigration and naturalization forms and from an internal FBI PowerPoint presentation.

Chen sued the FBI and Justice Department in 2018, saying her personal information was selectively leaked to “stain her reputation and harm her livelihood.”

The judge had ordered Herridge in August to answer questions about her source or sources in a statement to Chen’s lawyers. The judge ruled that Chen’s need to know for the sake of her lawsuit negates Herridge’s right to protect her source, despite the “vital importance of a free press and the critical role” that confidential sources play in the work of journalists.

Herridge was interviewed under oath by a lawyer for Chen in September but refused dozens of times to answer questions about her sources, saying at one point, “It is my understanding that the courts have ruled that to seek further judicial review in this case.” I must now deny the order, and I respectfully invoke my First Amendment rights in refusing to answer the question.”

Philbin, who served as deputy White House counsel during the Trump administration, has said that forcing Herridge to hand over her sources would “destroy her credibility and cripple her ability to play a role in bringing important information to light for the public.”

Philbin also told the judge that disclosing the identities of Herridge’s sources raises national security concerns. He wrote in court filings that there is a “serious risk” that Chen was “involved in making information about U.S. military members” available to the Chinese.

Legal battles over whether journalists must reveal sources are rare, though they have occurred several times in recent decades in Privacy Act cases like Chen’s. Some lawsuits have ended with a hefty Justice Department settlement rather than a journalist being forced to reveal a source, an outcome that remains possible in Herridge’s case.

For example, in 2008, the Justice Department agreed to pay $5.8 million to settle a lawsuit by Army scientist Steven Hatfill, who was wrongly identified as a person involved in the 2001 anthrax attacks. That settlement resulted in the withdrawal of a contempt order against a journalist who was asked to name her sources.

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Richer reported from Boston.