College newspaper defeats subpoena for reporter's notes

Southern Illinois University's student newspaper gets to keep reporter's notes private

ILLINOIS - The student newspaper at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale successfully defeated a May 17 attempt by the Williamson County Public Defender's office to subpoena a student reporter's notes. The public defender was hoping to gain access to all notes taken by the reporter while covering the murder of a Southern Illinois University student.

"The public defender essentially wanted to show someone on the witness stand was lying," said Amy Gherna, an attorney at Craven and Thornton law firm in Springfield, Ill., who represented the student newspaper. "He believed one of the reporter's sources told him the opposite of what was going to be said on the stand, which is not a compelling reason to divest a reporter of privilege."

The murdered student was stabbed to death on April 4. The police reporter for the Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper, wrote two in-depth stories about the case the week of the murder. Within 10 days, the public defender's office served the reporter with a subpoena requesting his notes be turned over on April 26 before a judge, according to Lance Speere, faculty adviser for the Daily Egyptian.

Craven and Thornton was quick to take up the reporter's cause, and Gherna argued before the judge that the subpoena would violate the Illinois reporter's privilege statute as well as the common law special witness doctrine. While both laws provide the same basic shield protection for reporters, the common law special witness doctrine offers the added advantage of being judge-made law.

"The common law approach means that if a judge were to decide that the reporter's privilege statute is no good in a particular case, you can point to this doctrine and say, 'Well, your fellow judges also seem to think this is good law'," Gherna said.

While the judge in this case did invite the public defender to file a petition to divest the reporter of his privilege, Gherna said such an appeal would be difficult for the public defender to argue.

Speere, meanwhile, is fairly confident the Daily Egyptian has heard the last of the matter.

"There's probably an 80-90 percent chance we won't hear anything more about it," Speere said.

Daily Egyptian, Illinois, news, Southern Illinois University, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale