Josh Wolf, the blogger whose record 7 1/2 months in federal prison stirred debate about who qualifies as a journalist and what legal protections journalists should receive, was freed Tuesday after releasing video footage sought by prosecutors about an anarchist protest. [Hear Josh Wolf's news conference (.mp3)]
Wolf, 24, held in contempt by a federal judge last August for defying a grand jury subpoena, walked out of the federal prison in Dublin at mid-afternoon after his lawyers and federal prosecutors reached a compromise during a mediation session Monday before a federal magistrate.
Wolf posted the uncut video on his Web site, gave prosecutors a copy and denied under oath that he knew anything about violent incidents at the July 2005 protest. In return, his lawyers said, prosecutors agreed not to summon him before the grand jury or ask him to identify any of the protesters shown on his video.
Prosecutors' withdrawal of their demand for his testimony was the key to the deal, Wolf said outside the prison gate.
"Journalists absolutely have to remain independent of law enforcement,'' he said. "Otherwise, people will never trust journalists.''
He said later that he had offered to turn over his videos last November on the condition that he be excused from testifying, but prosecutors turned him down. U.S. Attorney Scott Schools' office did not respond to a reporter's question about why prosecutors accepted those conditions Tuesday.
Asked about his imprisonment -- the longest-ever for a U.S. journalist for withholding information -- Wolf said, "Absolutely, this was worth it. I would do it again if I had to.'' He also said his case showed the need for a federal shield law that would protect journalists, including bloggers, from having to disclose confidential sources or unpublished material.
California and most other states have shield laws, but they do not apply to proceedings in federal court.
Federal prosecutors had sought Wolf's videos of the 2005 protest in San Francisco's Mission District in which a police officer suffered a fractured skull. Prosecutors said they were investigating a possible arson attempt against a police car, potentially a federal crime because the Police Department receives federal funds.
Portions of the video were shown on local television, but Wolf refused to turn over the outtakes to the grand jury and said they contained no evidence of a crime. His claims of constitutional protection were denied by U.S. District Judge William Alsup and a federal appeals court, and he could have remained in prison until July, when the grand jury's term expires.
Journalists' organizations rallied to Wolf's support. But prosecutors argued that Wolf, a political activist who posts his videos and commentary on his blog, should not be considered a journalist.
Wolf's "resolve to remain confined rather than comply with the grand jury subpoena is apparently fueled by his anointment as a journalistic martyr,'' Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Finigan said in a Jan. 29 court filing.
The case has prompted diverse opinions about the scope of journalism in the Internet age, with proliferating sources of information about public events and sometimes-blurred lines between reporting and advocacy.
The federal appeals court that upheld Wolf's imprisonment last September said he would not be considered a journalist in California because he was not employed by any publication or news agency. But a state appeals court ruled in an unrelated case last May -- the only case to address the issue under California law -- that bloggers can be protected by the state's shield law when they act like traditional reporters or editors by developing sources, collecting information and publishing it.
Wolf said Tuesday he considers himself a journalist in the same tradition as independent pamphleteers like Thomas Paine.
"A journalist's mission is to provide the truth to the public,'' he said. "I came out to the protest to document it and to provide the truth to the public.''
Wolf said he plans to go to Congress and lobby for a shield law that would protect bloggers and independent journalists as well as media employees. "We shouldn't have government deciding who is or isn't a journalist,'' he said.
While dropping their demand for Wolf's testimony, prosecutors required him to answer two questions under oath, in writing: whether he ever saw anyone throw or shoot any object at a police car or learned about anyone who did so, and whether he knew whom Officer Peter Shields was trying to arrest when he was hit from behind and suffered a fractured skull.
Wolf answered no to both questions in a court filing Tuesday. Prosecutors didn't explain what connection the attack on Shields might have with the federal grand jury investigation. The officer's assailant has never been identified.
In a separate filing, Finigan, the chief prosecutor in the case, said Wolf had complied with the grand jury subpoena and should be released. Finigan said the government has reserved the right to subpoena Wolf again in the future.
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