State appeals court quashes riot subpoena

MICHIGAN -- The Michigan State University student newspaper and 10 other media organizations will not have to turn over unpublished photos taken during a riot on the Michigan State campus, the state court of appeals ruled in March.

The court of appeals upheld a lower court's decision to quash a subpoena issued by an Ingham County prosecutor who sought photographs the media organizations had taken during riots that erupted after Duke University's men's basketball team defeated Michigan State in the 1999 NCAA Final Four Tournament.

The court of appeals will not allow "a prosecutor's office to, in effect, conduct a fishing expedition utilizing the media as its indentured servant," said Judge William B. Murphy in the decision.

The court said that a state statute governing the use of investigative subpoenas by prosecuting attorneys exempts reporters involved in the gathering or preparation of news for broadcast or publication unless the information has already been published or the reporter is the subject of the prosecutor's inquiry.

The court ruled that the media organizations in the case were exempt because they did not meet either of the two conditions.

The prosecutor had argued that the statute only exempts reporters who are working with an informant, but the court refused to interpret the statute that narrowly.

"To interpret the statute at issue in the manner advocated by the prosecutor would unquestionably infringe on the autonomy of the press and could have a chilling effect on the constitutional protections afforded the media," Murphy said.    

reports, Spring 2000