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Judge Fines Ex-Fox News Reporter for Not Revealing Sources

A federal judge held a veteran investigative reporter in contempt of court on Thursday for not revealing her sources for articles she wrote about a scientist who was investigated by the F.B.I.

The journalist, Catherine Herridge, formerly of CBS News and Fox News, was ordered to pay $800 a day until she divulged the information. The judge, Christopher Cooper of U.S. District Court in Washington, stayed the fine for 30 days to give Ms. Herridge time to appeal.

The case, which has alarmed First Amendment advocates, relates to a series of articles that were written by Ms. Herridge and her colleagues in 2017, while she worked at Fox News. The articles revealed that the F.B.I. had investigated the scientist, Dr. Yanping Chen, a Chinese American who is the president of the University of Management and Technology in Arlington, Va., over suspicions of Chinese military ties and whether she had lied on U.S. immigration forms.

The F.B.I. ended its investigation without bringing charges against Dr. Chen, a year before Ms. Herridge and her colleagues published and aired their reporting.

In 2018, Dr. Chen sued the F.B.I. and other government agencies, accusing them of violating the Privacy Act by leaking information to Ms. Herridge. The Privacy Act has protections for personal information collected by federal agencies.

Judge Cooper ruled last year that Ms. Herridge must reveal her confidential sources. On Thursday, he held her in civil contempt for disobeying that order. He said he had not issued the order lightly, deciding that Dr. Chen’s need for the information overcame Ms. Herridge’s First Amendment protections.

“Herridge and many of her colleagues in the journalism community may disagree with that decision and prefer that a different balance be struck, but she is not permitted to flout a federal court’s order with impunity,” Judge Cooper wrote in Thursday’s ruling.

Patrick Philbin, a lawyer for Ms. Herridge, said in an email: “We disagree with the district court’s decision, and to protect Ms. Herridge’s First Amendment rights, we intend to appeal.”

Ms. Herridge, who left Fox in 2019 to join CBS News as a senior investigative correspondent, was among nearly two dozen CBS News journalists who were laid off by the network this month.

Andrew C. Phillips, a lawyer for Dr. Chen, said in a statement that without the protections of the Privacy Act, federal law enforcement could “exploit its expansive powers to invade an American citizen’s private life and then selectively leak documents to smear reputations or score political points.”

“Today’s ruling is an important one to ensure that government officials can be held to account for outrageous abuses of power,” Mr. Phillips said.

A Fox News spokeswoman said that holding a journalist in contempt for protecting a confidential source “has a deeply chilling effect on journalism.”

“Fox News Media remains committed to protecting the rights of a free press and freedom of speech and believes this decision should be appealed,” she said.

Gabe Rottman, a senior lawyer at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said on Thursday that while he disagreed with the ruling against Ms. Herridge, “it’s a relief that Judge Cooper is enabling her to pursue an appeal without the financial pressure of daily fines.”

“The court’s opinion makes clear that the answer here has to be Congress passing a federal shield law,” Mr. Rottman said.

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