By: Alex Vavoulis
On the passing of James Bort, Jr., on January 20, 2010, many will feel the pain of the family as it grieves for a loved one. Many will also think about the value of a free press that Jim Bort supported in principle and in action as part of the Fresno Bee Four. The other three were George F. Gruner, William K. Patterson and Joe Rosato.
The four reporters of the Fresno Bee were sentenced to jail until they would agree to answer questions as to how they obtained secret Fresno County Grand Jury testimony. The reporters appealed to the Fifth District Court to overturn 73 contempt citations by a Superior Court judge. A two-to-one majority sustained approximately two-thirds of the contempt charges. Judge Donald Franson, Sr., in a dissenting opinion, argued that all the citations should have been reversed. The four were in jail for 15 days before Judge Hollis Best released them.
In 1976, the 200th birthday of our country, each of the Fresno Bee Four was given the Civil Liberties Award by the Fresno Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. This event took place on May 10, 1976, at the Fresno Hilton with the ACLU chapter’s chairperson, Howard Watkins, presiding at the program. Nancy McDermid, professor of speech at San Francisco State University, spoke on “The First Amendment after 200 Years.” The program was broadcast on KPFA on July 1, 1976, and could be heard on KFCF in the Central Valley.
The Fresno community must be applauded for its support of the four reporters. Psychiatrist Paul Levy gave important testimony in the case. The Fresno Free College Foundation entered the case as a Friend of the Court (amicus brief) in the local court, as well as at the U.S. Supreme Court with seven nationwide associations of newspapers and journalists. They contended that constitutional rights were being violated, including the right of a free press.
For James Bort, standing for principle was necessary. According to his wife, Barbara Jo, her husband told her that “it was probably the most important thing that either one of us will do in our lives.”
The four reporters signed a letter “expressing the deep gratitude all four us feel to the Fresno Free College Foundation for the support the organization has shown throughout the long struggle.” In an article in the Fresno Bee on December 14, 1992, Eli Setencich summed it up as well as anyone: “As newsmen, they had done what they had to do. They let the public know what they knew, allowing information to flow freely.”