National Press Club

Court reporters jailed for refusing to testify in criminal cases to speak at Club June 1

May 28, 2015 | By Justin Duckham | justinjduckham@gmail.com

Journalists Libby Averyt and David Kidwell both found themselves behind bars in the 1990s for refusing to testify after conducting jailhouse interviews.

On Monday, June 1, the two reporters will discuss their experiences going the distance for First Amendment rights at a Club event timed for the start of International Whistleblowers Week.

Averyt and Kidwell, currently with the Corpus Christi Caller Times and the Chicago Tribune, respectively, will be part of a group of nearly a dozen jailbird reporters participating in a first-of-its-kind symposium sponsored in part by the Club’s Journalism Institute and Freedom of the Press Committee. Tickets for the 6 p.m. event are $5 for Club members and $10 for nonmembers.

In 1990, Averyt, then a 26-year-old courts reporter for the Caller Times, was contacted by a defendant in a murder case eager to share his story in advance of his trial. Shortly after the publication of two stories on the defendant, Averyt was subpoenaed by prosecutors and ultimately pressed by the defendant’s attorney for information that did not make it in her story.

“That was basically tantamount to wanting me to open up my notes and show him everything,” Averyt said.

With the support of her paper, Averyt refused to answer the attorneys’ questions and was found in contempt of court.

As a reporter for the Miami Herald in 1996, Kidwell interviewed a defendant facing the death penalty for the murder of his daughter. Although the man had already confessed to the crime, prosecutors were seeking a first-degree murder charge and demanded Kidwell’s testimony in an effort to gain additional insight into the defendant’s state of mind on the night of the incident.

Like Averyt, Kidwell refused.

“I think that’s ultimately unfair,” Kidwell said. “My job is to hold the jailers accountable and if they’re going to turn me against the people who are under suspicion … who have spoken to me, then that’s just an ultimate abridgement of the First Amendment.”

Averyt was held in custody for three days, including two days in jail, before being released amid growing local and national media coverage. Kidwell was sentenced to 70 days but was released after serving 14 days under the judge’s assumption he would win his appeal.

While neither journalist was comfortable with the prospect of going to jail, both said their brief stints behind bars came with silver linings.

Averyt said she sees her case as a good example of the pitfalls that local reporters encounter on a daily basis.

“It wasn’t an easy experience,” she said. “One of the thing I hope to bring to Washington for the panel is that my case, I think, tends to represent what may be going on probably every week across America at mid-sized and smaller newspapers.”

As for Kidwell, he said he believes his refusal to testify, along with the media attention it generated, caused him to cease being subpoenaed and also led to an uptick in the number of sources willing to share tips with him.

Perhaps most significantly, the attention surrounding both reporters’ incarcerations aided the passage of shield laws in Texas and Florida.

“I think simply by standing up, it brought to the public an issue that I think is pretty cut and dry,” Kidwell said. “We have to be able to interview people who are the subject of news stories in order to do our jobs.”

“That’s as simple as it gets,” Kidwell added.

Monday’s symposium is sponsored by the NPC Journalism Institute, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, First Amendment Coalition, Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, Institute for Public Accuracy, Western Journalism Center, U.S. Justice Foundation and Free Speech Coalition.