Someone else took a stand, which suits me fine
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2000
There were more suits in the Dade City bureau of the St. Petersburg Times that morning than there ever had been before or have been since.
And I wasn't wearing any of them.
That was the first memory I had 27 years later when I read about the attorney for a Hillsborough circuit judge seeking sanctions against the Tampa Tribune for publishing what he says are details of a sealed grand jury report.
Someone, somewhere in that case already is reading about a case styled Morgan v. State, based on events that occurred in Dade City in late 1973.
Fellow reporter Lucy Morgan and I divvied up assignments one day in October of that year; one of us covering a meeting, the other a grand jury.
Covering grand juries is a pain in the neck because most of their proceedings are (or try to be) secret and coverage involves standing in the hall trying to figure out what is going on based on who is called to testify and any other tidbits you can develop. Lucy valiantly offered to take the duty.
Later that night, she told me she had a pretty good story because of something she had learned.
The next morning she called to warn me that I might be dealing with a lot of Times brass the next day. I arrived, bleary-eyed, to find Gene Patterson, the president and editor; managing editor Bob Haiman; state editor Don North; Morgan; her husband, Dick, who was North Suncoast bureau chief; and two Times attorneys crammed into my tiny one-reporter office.
The party went en masse to the courthouse, where an angry James T. Russell, who then was Pasco-Pinellas state attorney, demanded to know where Lucy had gotten information that he later said tracked, almost word for word, a sealed presentment on the jury's investigation of the Dade City Police Department and City Commission.
She wouldn't say.
An hour or so later, Circuit Judge Robert L. Williams asked the same question.
She wouldn't say.
Williams sentenced her to five months in jail for contempt of court and, when she later refused to answer the same questions before the grand jury, tacked on another three months.
Morgan stood firm on her rights under the First, Fifth and Fourteenth amendments in the constitutions of Florida and the United States.
But it was all talk until I saw an assistant state attorney stand up and say, "I'll get a matron." Then I realized that this mid 30s mother of three children was very near spending the upcoming holidays and considerably more time in a jail cell and was willing to do it to protect a source and a principle that gives all journalists a better chance of doing our jobs.
It was the first time I ever understood the phrase "chilling effect."
Bail finally was arranged and Morgan never saw the inside of a jail cell during the years-long battle that finally ended with the Florida Supreme Court overturning her sentence and establishing at least a partial legal shield that protects reporters from public officials angry because they can't maintain the secrecy of their own operations.
People mellowed with time, but the facts didn't change. When Morgan suffered a family tragedy years later, one of the warmest letters she received was from the judge who had sentenced her to jail.
She and Russell went to dinner a few years ago and he, retired and only curious, asked her again who her source was.
She wouldn't say.
Lucy Morgan went on the win a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on another story and to become the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief.
I'm still in the Dade City bureau, where we, at last, have enough chairs, and still get nervous when the suits show up.
I, and probably very soon a Tampa Tribune journalist or two, am grateful for Lucy's courage 27 years ago.
Am I sorry she took the grand jury assignment that day and walked (because she had better sources than I) into a niche in journalistic history?
I'm fine with the way things turned out.
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