Michigan State newspaper battles for photos

Prosecutor said he will not give up subpoena battle

MICHIGAN -- It has been a game of tug-of-war between a student photographer at Michigan State University and a Michigan prosecutor trying to gain access to photographs taken by the student journalist during March riots on the Michigan State campus.

A Michigan circuit court in May overturned a lower court's decision that upheld a subpoena that would have forced Michigan State's student newspaper, The State News, and 10 other commercial media organizations to hand over all of their photos of the riot scene to Ingham County prosecuting attorney Stuart Dunnings.  The riots erupted after the school's loss to Duke University in the 1999 NCAA basketball tournament.

The lower court judge had reasoned that Michigan's shield law, which provides reporters with an absolute privilege against the disclosure of the identities of confidential sources, did not apply in this case because no confidential informants are involved when photographs are taken at a public gathering.

Dunnings was attempting to have an investigative subpoena issued.  He had already tried, unsuccessfully, to have a standard subpoena issued, but the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in favor of the media in May.  Investigative subpoenas are usually used for discovery purposes; however the media are specifically exempted from being subjected to such subpoenas. Despite this stated exception for the media, Dunnings succeeded when trial judge David Jordan ordered the media groups to turn over their photos once again.

The media groups then appealed once again to the Ingham County Circuit Court, where Judge Lawrence Glazer overturned Jordan's decision and ruled in favor of the media.

State News adviser Berl Schwartz said the prosecutor is now attempting to appeal to the Michigan Court of Appeals, and he said The State News does not plan on surrendering until the paper finds itself with no further legal recourse.

Schwartz said the situation has Michigan State student journalists concerned that if they are forced to give up their photos, their credibility as objective news gatherers will suffer.

"We're not in the business of helping the police make their case," Schwartz said.  "We're here to serve a higher purpose of journalism by being as neutral as possible."

Fall 1999, reports