In July 2006, Wolf was jailed in terms of civil contempt for failing to comply with a subpoena to testify before a Federal Grand Jury in the USA. Josh Wolf is a freelance journalist. In July 2005, Wolf attended a protest against the G-8 Summit in San Francisco, where he videotaped demonstrators. He later sold some of his footage to a local television station and posted some of the contents, entitled "All empires must fall" (2005), to his internet blog.
The Federal Prosecution were of the opinion that unreleased footage of his out-takes would assist in identifying demonstrators who vandalised a police car and injured a police officer. Wolf refused to hand this footage over to the Federal Grand Jury
During the process of the appeals that followed, Wolf offered to allow the Judge to view the footage, in order to demonstrate that there was nothing to hide. This offer was refused and the Appeals court procedures continued for almost two years.
Finally, during mediation with the magistrate judge, Wolf agreed to hand over the footage and he was released. Although the Federal Jury had the tapes they required Wolf was not required in terms of the mediated outcome to personally testify before them.
This case study presents a number of ethical and legal issues that need to be considered. These include the following:
- Was Josh Wolf unbiased and balanced in his reporting?
- Were his actions true to the principle of altruism?
- Was he actually a journalist, and entitled to protection from being compelled to give evidence?
- Should the Federal Grand Jury be able to compel citizens to give evidence?
- If he had not been jailed, would the resulting precedent have given blanket protection to everybody who writes and publishes on the internet?
- Was the final mediation granted by the Court of Appeals, which led to the resolution of the case, a fair outcome?
It can be argued from the perspective of ethical theorists, that Wolf's actions are not justifiable. Wolf either had a duty to provide evidence and to comply with the subpoena to testify before the Federal Grand Jury, or needed to justify his refusal on sound principles of ethics during the Court of Appeals process.
Josh Wolf's motivation for failing to comply is obscure; apparently based on self-interest and violates the values of utilitarianism. From the standpoint of John Mill (1968), the claims of the protesters Wolf supports have to be subordinated to the greatest number of people. The greater number of people in the USA prefer to live in peaceful society where police cars are not burned and officers of the law are not subjected to assault.
Bowie's "fundamental moral principle" (1985)...or respect for other persons was violated when the police officer was attacked. As the federal laws of the USA are in place to protect the greater number of people, the Grand Jury was legally and ethically correct in requiring that evidence be provided for examination.
Kant's principle of categorical imperative is universally found within the rule of law, which is in place for the common good. Individual lack of compliance with the law is a direct challenge to the norms of any society. The Court of Appeals exists so that these challenges can have a fair hearing.
The Court of Appeals were correct in their decision to incarcerate Wolf during the appeals process. They are also required to be obedient to the rules of action. One important factor is that Wolf's association with the suspected perpetrators of the crime could have compromised the outcome of the case. As Abelson et al pointed out in the History of ethics, (1967), obedience to a rule of action "expresses the golden rule to be found in all great religions and has been incorporated in....modern systems of ethical theory."
Wolf might argue that the USA is not a Christian nation and that Judeo-Christian ethics do not therefore apply to him as an American citizen. Thomas Jefferson's interpretation of the 1st Amendment in a letter to the Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association, was that it is a "wall of separation between church and State" (January 1st, 1802). Nevertheless, the criminal and federal law of the USA pertains to conduct specifically mentioned in the Christian Bible and are based on the Christian ethic of "loving thy neighbour as thyself". The Appeals Court, the Federal Police and the Federal Grand Jury are all agents of the public and it is their duty to uphold the ethics of the greater society.
When arguing moral consequences, I propose that Wolf was not balanced and unbiased in his reporting. The methodology of objectivity involves the journalist having the capacity to report a set of facts "without their own perceptions and opinions colouring the report' (Morrison, 2002). In an interview with Frontline News (2007), Josh Wolf said "Transparent journalism has a lot more ability to gain true trust with its viewers than those striving for objective journalism." In the same interview, he would not go so far as to state he is an "anarchist", but did admit to being anti-capitalist. His objection to releasing the footage cannot therefore support any claim he has that his actions are altruistic. His political beliefs and his empathy for the protesters nullify his credibility.
The ethics of egalitarianism would initially seem to apply to Wolf, in that he was reporting about a minority group of protesters. His refusal to hand over evidence that may have incriminated members of this minority group indicates that Wolf had "entered into a social contract to minimise harm" to them and their ideals. (Rawls 1971). However, Wolf failed to follow through his ethical reasoning in that he did not step "behind the hypothetical veil of ignorance" and therefore, Wolf, as a self-interested moral agent was unable to act impartially and without regard to his own cultural bias. (Day, 2000)
There has been debate on whether Josh Wolf was a legitimate journalist as he was not accredited to any professional media organisation. Given that there is no federal protection that applies to journalists being exempt from giving evidence, the question as to whether he was or was not a journalist should not impact on this case.
It would be hard for Wolf to claim confidentiality as a reason for not releasing the footage, as the video was filmed in a public demonstration. Without the defence of confidentiality, Josh Wolf is just an ordinary citizen and he therefore had a moral duty to provide evidence to the courts when called upon to do so. Whilst this viewpoint may seem to counter Aristotle's Golden Mean, in that it appears to an extreme in itself, the very existence of the Appeal Court Process allowed the ethical decisions to "take the shape of the twists and runs of this" case. (Leslie, 2004). The mediated outcome of the case and the release of Wolf from prison provide an excellent example of how the Court of Appeal applied the practical wisdom of Aristotle in reaching a mean relative in this instance.
Josh Wolf left the court with no option but to jail him for contempt when he refused to comply with the subpoena. The Federal Grand Jury is not in a position to assess each individual situation ethic. Relativism has no place in a justice system. It would be impossible to administer the courts if each person had the self-determination to declare that what is right for the majority of society need not apply to them. This would foster anarchy and in this instance there are far-reaching implications in setting any legal precedent that grants protection to citizens who publish independently on the internet.
Mark Doremus and Karen Slattery point out in We need to talk (2006), that "a distinction must be made between a professional journalist and ... anyone else with access to an audience. If all citizens can have a claim to free speech under the law... then no one would be obligated to give evidence in a wide range of situations. When everyone counts as a journalist, no one really counts – because the granting of privilege would become impractical".
The practical application of the law is not always easy to balance against the philosophies of ethics. The human race has debated the issues of ethics and order for centuries. Whilst the law tends to take a pedantic stand, ethics are debatable philosophies that lend themselves to grey areas. That they are inextricably linked together reinforces the need for professional ethical codes in order for journalists to be better able to assess their own objectivity
Abelson, R., & Nielsen, K. (1967). History of ethics. In P. Edwards (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Vol. 3, pp. 81-117). New York: The Macmillan Company and The Free Press
Bowie, N. (1985) Making ethical decisions. New York: McGraw-Hill
Day, L. (2000). Ethics in media communications: Cases and controversies (3rd ed. PP 53-74). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Frontline. (2007). Interview Josh Wolf. In Frontline news war. Retrieved June 1, 2008, from WGBH Educational Foundation website:
Leslie, L. (2004) Mass communication ethics: Decision making in post modern culture (2nd ed., pp 85-87). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin
Mill, J. S. (1968). Selected writings of John Stuart Mill (M. Cowling, Ed.). New York: New American Library.
Morrison, A. (2002). Objectivity. In J. McGregor & M. Comrie (Eds), What's news: Reclaiming journalism in New Zealand (pp.56-71). Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press.
Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. (pp 30-31). Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Slattery, K., & Doremus, M. (2006, October). Ethics: We need to talk. In The digital journalist. Retrieved June 1, 2008, from
Wolf, J. (Producer). (2005). All empires must fall [Motion picture]. United States. Retrieved June 1, 2008, from http://joshwolf.net/freejosh/