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Sarah Olson: A Journalist Caught in the Legal Crossfire

By Janice Markham
January 16, 2007

In June 2006, Lt. Ehren Watada made national headlines when he refused to deploy to Iraq. A court-martial has been convened with one count of "missing movement" (refusing deployment to Iraq) and four counts of "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman." If convicted, Lt. Watada, 28, could spend up to six years in prison, with four years of possible incarceration stemming from statements he made to the press.

Independent journalist Sarah Olson wrote a news story for about Watada that was published June 7th, 2006. In that article, Watada publicly challenged the legality of the war, saying, "as I read about the level of deception the Bush administration used to initiate and process this war, I was shocked. I became ashamed of wearing the uniform." On December 14th, 2006, Olson was served with a two-page subpoena, demanding that the 31-year-old journalist appear at Watada's court-martial in Fort Lewis, Washington, February 5 through 9, 2007. It is believed that the Army wants Olson to authenticate the substance of her article and to confirm the statements Watada made to her.

"Every journalist wants to stand by their reporting," Olson told me. "I am no exception. I am proud of the work I did on the Lt. Watada story." But Olson says the Army's request cuts to the heart of the First Amendment. "The Army is attempting to use me - a journalist -- to build its case against personal political speech. That's something I don't think any journalist can do." And she's not the only one who believes this. The Society of Professional Journalists, the Editorial Staff at the LA Times and PEN American Center have issued statements in support of her position.

I met with Sarah Olson on January 14th in Memphis, Tennessee, at the Freepress Media Reform Conference, where she spoke quite candidly and passionately about her situation. One aspect of the case stands out to me: This is possibly the first time the Army is actively seeking testimony of a professional journalist to prove one of its own officers violated military law by publicly questioning the rationale for war.

While Lt. Watada is being charged with four counts of "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman" for questioning the rationale of the war, it's an argument he will never be allowed to make in court. The pretrial ruling issued from Ft. Lewis January 16th disallows any mention of the legality of the war.

When I asked Olson her greatest concern regarding this subpoena, aside from the possibility of a six month jail term, she recounted her dismay in even getting the story out. "For most people," Olson contended, "if you don't see it in the nightly news on television, how do you know it's happening? You don't." Olson also spoke quite fervently about the invasion of journalist's rights, saying, "If you can't report on controversial subjects for fear of being dragged into court - that threatens our Democracy."

Olson did recognize the support she has already received, particularly from the independent media and fellow journalists. She stated pointedly, "Journalists care about other journalists, and they look at my situation and think.that could be me." published a response by Sarah Olson to her subpoena in which she closed with the following: "I stand firmly by a conviction I share with many: a member of the press should never be placed in the position of aiding a government prosecution of political speech. This goes against the grain of even the most basic understanding of the First Amendment's free press guarantees and the expectation of a democracy that relies on a free flow of information and perspectives without fear of censor or retribution. You may ask: Do I want to be sent to prison by the US Army for not cooperating with their prosecution of Lieutenant Watada? My answer: Absolutely not. You may also ask: Would I rather contribute to the prosecution of a news source for sharing newsworthy perspectives on an affair of national concern? That is the question I wholly object to having before me in the first place."

We at Press for Democracy believe that now more than ever there is a dire need for free speech, open dialogue and debate. It is crucial to uphold the ideals of our Constitution and our First Amendment rights; we oppose all the political speech related charges against Lt. Watada, and request that the army accept Lt. Watada's resignation and provide an honorable or general discharge. We encourage people to contact the Fort Lewis commanding officer to decry this assault on the First Amendment, and we join Sarah Olson in the fight against this attack on journalists.

Updates will be posted as this case proceeds.

Letters of support regarding Sarah Olson and Lieutenant Ehren Watada can be sent to:

Commanding General Fort Lewis and I Corps
Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik
Bldg 2025 Stop 1
Fort Lewis, WA 98433