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Reporter Farr Dies; Went to Jail to Protect Sources

Times Staff Writer

Bill Farr, a newspaper reporter who served 46 days in jail rather than disclose a confidential news source, died early Thursday at UCLA Medical Center, where he was being treated for a variety of ailments.

He was 52, and his death was attributed to complications of pancreatic cancer. He had been undergoing treatment since mid-1985, but until shortly before his latest hospitalization was still active as a Los Angeles Times reporter, investigating cocaine trafficking and other law enforcement problems.

Farr always insisted that in going to jail in 1972 he did no more than any other conscientious reporter would do.

“There is no need to attach any nobility to what I did,” he said. “All good reporters feel the same way about protecting news sources.”

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Although Farr’s five-year battle failed to establish the principle that a reporter had a legal right to protect his sources in similar circumstances, it led to strengthening of state law shielding a reporter’s ability to obtain and publish information.

And it conveyed to judges that many reporters would go to jail before revealing confidential sources.

After his release, Farr became active in such organizations as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Sigma Delta Chi/Society of Professional Journalists, and Investigative Reporters and Editors, appearing before countless gatherings to talk on behalf of press freedom. He jokingly referred to himself as “a famous jailbird.”

His prolonged ordeal began in 1970, when he was a reporter for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner assigned to the Charles Manson murder trial. Despite a gag order imposed by the judge on attorneys, witnesses and court personnel, Farr obtained and published a prospective witness’s account of purported plans by the Manson Family to murder such famed show business personalities as Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor.

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Farr refused to tell Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles H. Older where he had obtained the information, relying on a California “shield” law he believed protected reporters from being forced to name sources.

But when Farr temporarily stepped from behind that shield to become press spokesman for then-Dist. Atty. Joseph Busch, Older ordered him to divulge his sources. When Farr refused, Older cited him for contempt of court.

Farr returned to journalism, going to work for The Times in 1972--but it was too late to protect him from the order. Older ordered him jailed until he gave up the names. Farr was to concede later that he had erred in letting the judge know the sources were two attorneys, who are officers of the court.

Older ordered him jailed until he named them. Although an appellate court ruled that the “shield” law could not interfere with a court’s inherent power to control its own officers and proceedings, Farr continued to keep silent on the grounds that he had given his promise not to tell.

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“For me it is a simple matter, beyond all legalisms,” Farr said. “I gave a personal and professional promise. I feel I must keep that promise regardless of the consequences.”

He died without breaking that promise.

Farr went to jail and spent Christmas of 1972 there. He finally was ordered released by U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas pending consideration of his case by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Although the Older contempt citation eventually was allowed to stand, a state Court of Appeal ruling in 1974 prompted another Superior Court judge to hold that to jail him again indefinitely would simply punish him rather than force him to talk. State law limits the punitive sentence for civil contempt.

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Thus, what could have been (in Farr’s words) “a life sentence” was reduced to just five days--the legal penalty for contempt. Older ordered him to serve those five days and to pay a $500 fine. Finally, the state Court of Appeal ruled that he could not be jailed again for civil contempt, and Judge Older declined to pursue the matter further.

In the meantime, two of the Manson case defense attorneys sued Farr for libel because he told Older he had obtained the secret transcripts from two of the six (defense and prosecution) attorneys in the case, although he did not say which two.

That suit was finally dismissed by Superior Court Judge Robert Weil because the plaintiffs had not moved to get the case to trial within the required five years.

William T. Farr was born Dec. 22, 1934, in San Jose, attended California State University at San Jose and began his journalism career as a sports writer on the Palo Alto Times.

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He was passionately fond of boxing and while serving in the Marine Corps fought in the Golden Gloves tournament.

He worked as a reporter for the then-Santa Ana Register and then went to the Herald-Examiner, where he was an investigative reporter. He spent only a brief time in 1971 as an executive assistant to then-Dist. Atty. Busch before going to work for The Times.

In addition to awards from the Greater Los Angeles Press Club, Sigma Delta Chi, the California VFW and the Criminal Courts Bar Assn. for his reporting and for his battle on behalf of the First Amendment, Farr won a television Emmy in 1979 for his work as co-producer of “Student News” on KCET (Channel 28).

Farr also was one of the original reporters in the district attorney’s Criminal Courts Building press room when it opened in 1972.

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On Thursday, Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner said that he “was honored” to name that room the Bill Farr Memorial Press Room.

Despite all these honors, Farr often said he never wanted to be a celebrity.

“I just want to be a reporter.”

Farr leaves his wife, Nancy, and two sons, Jamey and Michael. He also leaves three sisters and two brothers, all of whom ask contributions in his name to the American Cancer Society.

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Military and memorial services are pending.


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