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Video blogger gets two days to return to prison

Josh Wolf now has more time to spread the word about what he calls an assault on First Amendment rights.

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
4 min read
DUBLIN, Calif.--Video blogger and freelance journalist Josh Wolf was on Wednesday given two more days to either turn himself back in to prison or cooperate with a federal grand jury seeking unpublished footage he shot during a protest that turned violent.

Wolf, who said he has no plans to hand over the outtakes from a 2005 San Francisco demonstration against the G8 summit, initially had until Wednesday afternoon to return to the Federal Correctional Institute here, according to an order by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revoking his bail Monday.

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Video: Hear from the first jailed blogger
Josh Wolf speaks at press conference

But at the last minute the court gave Wolf, 24, a couple of extra days. That not only allows him to deal with roommate issues, pay bills and downscale his cell phone plan, he said, it gives him time to spread his message about what he sees as an attack on a free and independent press.

No "unpaid journalist" wants to be an "unpaid investigator for law enforcement," Wolf told a pack of reporters who had come to the prison for a press conference and to see him walk through the prison doors.

On Aug. 1, Wolf became the first known blogger to be jailed on contempt charges for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury. In addition to refusing to hand over the footage (click here for video; contains profanity), he refused to testify before the grand jury, citing his right as a journalist to withhold unpublished material and protect confidential sources.

"Make no mistake that Josh is going to prison for political reasons."
--Carlos Villarreal, National Lawyers Guild

A pioneer in the growing video-blogging movement, Wolf was released on bail a month later while his appeal on the contempt charges was being considered. But a three-judge panel last week rejected the appeal and then revoked bail. Wolf could serve until the grand jury term expires, which would be in nine months, if it is not extended.

Wolf and those defending him maintain that he's being targeted because of his interest in giving a voice to those on the fringe.

"His beat is activism," said the National Lawyers Guild's Carlos Villarreal, adding that Wolf often covers leftists, anarchists and anti-War and anti-Bush activists. "Make no mistake that Josh is going to prison for political reasons."

Jose Luis Fuentes, one of Wolf's Oakland, Calif.-based attorneys, said his team plans to petition for a rehearing before the full appeals court. He disagrees with the prosecution's assertion that imprisoning Wolf is a way to coerce him to hand over the videotape, which Wolf maintains offers no incriminating evidence.

It's not coercive, "once you've made up your mind you're going to see something through all the appeals," Wolf said.

Rather, Wolf feels like his bail was revoked to silence him and as punishment, something akin to an older brother holding your arm behind your back and saying, "I'm going to break your arm if you don't do what I tell you," he said.

The prosecution, for its part, contends that it's just fulfilling an "obligation to the community to investigate and gather relevant and material evidence of serious crimes," said Luke Macaulay, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco.

"Six separate judges or panels have now ruled unequivocally that we have lawfully issued a subpoena for legitimate investigative purposes, and that the material in question should be furnished to the grand jury," he said, adding that the grand jury is entitled to all the evidence in Wolf's possession related to the demonstration.

Wolf might have been protected by California's shield law. But the case ended up in federal hands because federal prosecutors--who want to see if Wolf's footage shows a San Francisco police car being set on fire at the protest--say they have jurisdiction over the case because the car was paid for in part by federal dollars. A police officer was also injured at the protest.

Fuentes said he's hopeful the 9th Circuit will take a look at the constitutional issues at stake, particularly when it comes to grand juries and the press.

"Mr. Wolf is not above the law," he said. "But we do have a social contract, our constitution, which grants the press freedom of the press, and the government should not abridge those rights that have been in this country for over 200 years."

Macaulay points out, however, that his office "did not initiate a federal investigation in order to circumvent the California State Shield laws."