Judge thwarts prosecutor's efforts to subpoena student paper's notes

Shield law protects news organizations in dispute over campus riot footage

MICHIGAN -- Eleven media outlets, among them the Michigan State University student newspaper, scored a victory in September when the state supreme court unanimously ruled against an East Lansing prosecutor who subpoenaed the media's footage of a March 1999 campus riot.

Ingham County prosecutor Stuart Dunnings wanted the video and still photography of nine TV stations and two newspapers to help build his cases against participants in the riots, which broke out on the East Lansing campus following Michigan Stateís loss to Duke University in the 1999 NCAA Menís Basketball Tournament.

Dunnings argued that the footage he sought was of a "public event," and as such, should be turned over because it contained evidence of criminal activity. The court disagreed and, citing Michigan statutory law, ruled the media outlets may keep all footage that has never been published or broadcast. The statute, called the Investigative Subpoena Act, allows law enforcement agencies and officials to subpoena only material that has already been published or broadcast or material that is related to an investigation involving an agent of a news organization.

In its opinion, the court said that although the act in question was "poorly drafted," it still made clear that only two circumstances could strip reporters of their privilege.

"Neither is present in this case," the court said. "This material has not been disseminated to the public by the media broadcast or print publication. And the reporters themselves are not the subject of the inquiry.

"Thus, under the plain language of the statute, these media representatives are not subject to an investigative subpoena."

"We win. We win. We win," said an excited Berl Schwartz, adviser and general manager of The State News, Michigan State's student newspaper.

The victory did not come without a price, though. The News racked up more than $9,200 in legal fees during the battle, which began in a Michigan trial court and rose through the state court of appeals before landing in front of the supreme court.

reports, Winter 2000-01