In 2017, Catherine Herridge, then a journalist at Fox News, reported that a Chinese American scientist was under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Now, a judge is ordering her to reveal her confidential sources in a move that experts say could have severe ramifications for press freedom in the United States.
On Tuesday, Judge Christopher Cooper of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a ruling that would force Herridge, currently a CBS News correspondent, to participate in a deposition regarding the identity of her anonymous sources from that 2017 series of stories.
In Herridge’s investigation, she reported that scientist Yanping Chen was the subject of a federal counterintelligence probe.
The ruling was a result of a lawsuit that Chen filed against the FBI in 2018. Chen alleges that federal authorities violated the Privacy Act by leaking information about her.
Then in 2022, Chen subpoenaed Herridge and Fox News to try to determine the alleged leaker’s identity, but the journalist and news outlet rebuffed her efforts, citing First Amendment protections afforded to the press.
But in Cooper’s ruling, he said Chen’s need for the evidence outweighed Herridge’s First Amendment privilege.
“The Court recognizes both the vital importance of a free press and the critical role that confidential sources play in the work of investigative journalists like Herridge,” Cooper wrote in the ruling. “But applying the binding case law of this Circuit, the Court concludes that Chen’s need for the requested evidence overcomes Herridge’s qualified First Amendment privilege in this case.”
Cooper quashed a subpoena seeking Herridge’s documents. The judge also quashed subpoenas seeking testimony and documents from Fox News. But he left standing the subpoena for testimony from Herridge regarding her sources.
It’s unclear whether Herridge and Fox News will abide by Cooper’s order. In an email, Herridge told VOA, “We have been declining to comment for now.”
Fox News did not immediately reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.
Press freedom experts have long warned that the threat of unmasking sources can have a chilling effect.
“Quality journalism, especially investigative journalism, depends on the assurance of anonymity that reporters can give to their sources, so judicial decisions like this weaken journalism and its ability to provide the public with the information they need,” Clayton Weimers, executive director of the Reporters Without Borders U.S. bureau, told VOA.
Weimers added that “cases like this really underscore the importance of passing a federal press shield law.”
Shield laws protect journalists from being forced by the government to disclose information such as the identities of sources.
Nearly every U.S. state and the District of Columbia have either a shield law or court recognition of qualified privilege for sources, but no federal law is in place.
In June, a bipartisan group of senators reintroduced a landmark federal shield bill, known as the PRESS Act, and it is currently working its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The bill would protect journalists’ communications records from the government, with narrow exceptions for terrorism and the threat of imminent violence.