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Journalist Sarah Olson Wins Victory for Free Speech against Subpoena

January 30, 2007

Independent journalist Sarah Olson has won her First Amendment fight against a government subpoena ordering her to testify in the court martial of war resister U.S. Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada. On January 29, the military dropped its subpoena against Olson, 31, who has been covering the resistance to the war in Iraq ever since the invasion in 2003. Olson’s radio and print stories on Watada, the first commissioned officer to be court-martialed for refusing to go to Iraq, prompted the military to seek her print interview in their case against the lieutenant. In Olson’s exclusive interview with Watada in June 7, 2006, the officer stated that he refused to deploy to Iraq on the grounds that it is an “illegal and immoral war…based on false pretenses.” The military initially charged Watada, 28, with one count of missing his troop movement to Iraq and four counts of conduct unbecoming an officer for statements he made to journalists about the war, for a possible term of six years in prison. According to Watada’s defense attorney, these latter counts violate his First Amendment right to free speech; Olson was subpoenaed to testify on one of these counts. After prosecutors dropped two of the counts against Watada, the testimony of Olson and another reporter was no longer needed and the subpoenas were dropped. Subpoena or no, Olson has steadfastly denounced the demand that she testify in Watada’s court martial, which is still scheduled to begin in Ft. Lewis, Washington on February 5. Olson faced six months in jail, a $500 fine and a felony charge had she not testified about the freelance story for which she was paid $300 to write. Although it’s not uncommon for journalists to testify in court to verify the accuracy of their stories, Olson’s case was different because the issue of the First Amendment is the basis of the initial four counts against Watada (now two counts) and at the heart of his defense—and Olson has been adamant that a journalist must not be forced to assist the courts in limiting free speech. “What could be more hostile to the idea of a free press than a journalist participating in the suppression of newsworthy speech? The idea that you can force a member of the press to suppress free speech is a horror that has nothing to do with whatever my opinions are about the war,” she says. Olson also notes that coverage of war resisters and dissenters will suffer if journalists can be used to prosecute them for their viewpoints. “Who would ever talk to me again?” she asks. In recent years, courts have tried to force other journalists to reveal sources or provide unpublished notes or tapes. Videographer Josh Wolf has been jailed since August 2006 for refusing to provide unpublished video of protesters against a G-8 Summit. Military courts are bound by fewer set rules than civil courts, and it was never clear why the government was pursuing Sarah Olson’s testimony when numerous video and audio broadcasts are available of Watada making the same statements quoted by Olson—and can be found on Watada’s own support website. Subpoenas against journalists may be intended to put a damper on their reporting, but in Olson’s case, the overwhelming response has been an outpouring of support for her stand on free speech—for both journalists and for voices of dissent. Such principles brought Olson, a freelancer without the deep pockets of a large news organization, the pro bono legal services of First Amendment Center, the early support of PEN America, the Society of Professional Journalists, and other groups. She garnered broad support from journalists and celebrities at the National Conference for Media Reform in mid-January—and aid from the Center for Media and Democracy, which quickly put up an impressive website for Olson pro bono, complete with an online petition and support boxes. Despite the attention and media spotlight, Olson is surprised to find herself in the news. She hesitates often when asked about her own life. “I guess I should make some talking points for myself,” she smiles awkwardly. “There’s a reason why I work on the other side of the microphone.” Yet the New Hampshire native didn’t always plan on becoming a journalist. She was a women’s studies major at Simmons College, and volunteered at a rape crisis center when she was in high school. After moving to San Francisco and getting involved in a media rights campaign, she answered an ad six years ago that San Francisco Liberation Radio, a pirate radio group, issued with the call: “We need more women programmers.” She learned to produce radio news stories, and to write for print and the web. Since that time, she’s produced radio investigations on Operation Save America’s anti-abortion campaign in Mississippi; the role of doulas in assisting incarcerated women with their pregnancies; and women’s movements in Palestine, to mention just a few. Sarah Olson’s victory comes at a time when journalists and the First Amendment have seemed under siege. Having come to journalism through the “alternative” news media, she pursued Lt. Watada’s story when few media outlets were interested. Though the subpoena has been dropped, Olson has no intention of slowing her work on behalf of free speech and the First Amendment. Immediately following the January 29 announcement, she issued this statement: “It is clear that we must continue to demand that the separation between press and government be strong, and that the press be a platform for all perspectives, regardless of their popularity with the current administration.”