Our Views: Ruling hurts First Amendment

Since the New Orleans area sprang back to life after Hurricane Katrina, the roster of crooked politicians has grown to include a mayor of New Orleans, parish presidents in Jefferson and St. John the Baptist, the coroner of St. Tammany Parish and the sheriff of Plaquemines Parish.

The latest to earn a spot in the penitentiary was New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, convicted on 20 of 21 charges by a jury in February.

In almost every case, investigative journalists played a prominent role in raising questions about shady deals that were news to the public — and sometimes prosecutors.

During Nagin’s trial, investigative reporter Gordon Russell briefly played a starring role when evidence showed the mayor’s corrupt technology czar, Greg Meffert, texted his boss in frustration “Gordon Russell is up my ass and in my s*** 24/7.”

Louisiana needs strong investigative journalism as much as it ever has, but now the practice of shoeleather reporting is under attack at Poydras and Camp, in the very courthouse where Nagin, Aaron Broussard, Bill Hubbard, Peter Galvan and Jiff Hingle were brought to justice.

Two federal prosecutors in the office which convicted those five public officials polluted their reputations by commenting anonymously online. Now, a parade of unscrupulous politicians, dishonest public servants and dangerous drug dealers has moved to put the U.S. Attorney’s Office itself on trial.

Each case is different, but in general they seek to prove the prosecutors abused their office by commenting anonymously online and leaking to the media. The issue was joined last month when attorneys for members of the Hankton family, who police described as New Orleans’ most dangerous drug gang, subpoenaed Russell and reporter John Simerman to reveal sources who contributed to stories about nearly 20 criminal cases.

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman wisely threw out the most farfetched aspects of the subpoena, but he compelled the two reporters to testify about an Oct. 10, 2012, meeting with FBI agents.

Three days after the meeting, a story written by Simerman appeared in The Times-Picayune that chronicled the Hanktons’ ruthlessness in jaw-dropping detail and predicted members of their gang would be indicted “within days or weeks.”

Such an assertion hardly required a Deep Throat because a spokesman for the Orleans Parish DA was quoted as saying that the feds had taken over the Hankton case, and many of the details were already known through statements by local police and prosecutors.

The Hanktons already have more than 50 pages of testimony from the FBI agents about the meeting, which should be sufficient to press their case. Their claim that federal agents conspired to tilt the playing field to secure an indictment is especially dubious since grand jury proceedings are by their nature tilted. They are held in secret and prosecutors are the only ones offering evidence.

Judge Feldman’s ruling correctly barred the Hankton defendants from conducting a limitless fishing expedition that would do lasting damage to the First Amendment protections for news reporting.

But demanding testimony from Simerman and Russell, who now work for The Advocate, compromises the practice of investigative journalism and makes life easier for the Ray Nagins of tomorrow.

In the coming months, other judges of the Eastern District and perhaps on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will be called upon to rule in similar cases. They should remember that the First Amendment protects our democracy only to the extent that our democracy protects the First Amendment.