A federal judge recently ruled that investigative reporter Catherine Herridge must reveal her sources for an investigative series involving an FBI investigation into a Chinese scientist named Yanping Chen.
Herridge, currently with CBS News - but was was employed by Fox News at the time of the reports - must sit for a deposition and answer questions under oath about the identity and intent of her sources, per US District Judge Christopher Cooper.
"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," wrote Cooper, and Obama appointee, in a 28-page 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's ruling has raised alarms with press freedom advocates, who argue that the ruling threatens the fundamental principle of journalists protecting their sources.
"Investigative journalism cannot function without credible assurances of confidentiality to sources," said Gabe Rottman, a director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a statement to CNN. "While the Privacy Act provides essential protections for the public, using it to breach reporter-source confidentiality poses significant risks to a free press."
Legal representatives for Herridge and Fox News argued that the First Amendment shields journalists from such demands, and say that Chen's case didn't meet the criteria to violate this constitutional protection. They asserted that the public interest in safeguarding sources far outweighed the plaintiff's demand for information, which carried no broader societal significance.
While the U.S. Constitution protects journalists' right to shield their sources, the courts have acknowledged that certain circumstances, such as a critical need for information and exhaustive exploration of alternatives, can justify compelling a reporter to reveal sources.
"The balance of interests overwhelmingly favors protecting sources," said Herridge's legal team. "Plaintiff’s private interest in Privacy Act damages carries no broader public interest. Moreover, given the infirmities in the merits of her case, it is unlikely that Plaintiff can ever establish significant damages at all."
Since filing the lawsuit against the FBI and other federal agencies, Ms. Chen has been able to take 18 depositions of current and former government employees and obtained declarations from others but has still been unable to confirm Ms. Herridge's sources. She believes an FBI agent, an alleged FBI informant, or other government agents leaked an internal FBI presentation created by the agent to Ms. Herridge. -Epoch Times
"The identity of Herridge’s source is central to Chen’s claim, and despite exhaustive discovery, Chen has been unable to ferret out his or her identity. The only reasonable option left is for Chen to ask Herridge herself," wrote the judge.
A Hunt for the Truth
Chen, a naturalized U.S. citizen and founder of the University of Management and Technology, found herself at the center of an FBI investigation that triggered Herridge's investigative reporting. The stories delved into Chen's alleged ties to the Chinese military and the controversy surrounding the FBI's handling of the case. Chen has pursued legal action, alleging that the leak of information violated the Privacy Act.
Despite multiple depositions and a search for information, Chen has been unable to confirm the identity of Herridge's sources. This impasse led Judge Cooper to rule in favor of compelling Herridge's testimony.
The FBI, starting in 2010, investigated Ms. Chen. Agents searched Ms. Chen's home and the university's main office. In 2016, prosecutors told Ms. Chen's attorney she would not be charged.
Reporting by Ms. Herridge had focused on Ms. Chen's alleged ties to the Chinese military, but Ms. Chen had said on immigration documents that she had never been affiliated with the military of the Chinese Communist Party. The stories also detailed the FBI investigation and said that agents and prosecutors disagreed over how the case was handled. -Epoch Times
In 2018, the DoD ceased helping pay the tuition of military members to attend Chen's university. She then sued the FBI, alleging that the leak of information was illegal, which violated the Privacy Act.
"Soon after ... Chen was informed that no charges would be brought against her, and in violation of federal law," reads the lawsuit. "one or more agents of the Defendants, who possessed or had access to confidential FBI records pertaining to the investigation, caused the Leaked Records to be disclosed to one or more employees or agents of Fox News."