Northwestern journalism students fight subpoenas

ILLINOIS -- Journalism students working on the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism are fighting subpoenas requesting their grades, off-the-record interviews, electronic communications, notes, course syllabi, grading criteria for the course and receipts for expenses that students incurred for their investigation of the case of Anthony McKinney, who was convicted and jailed in 1978 for allegedly shooting a security guard in Harvey, Ill.

Illinois assistant state's attorneys sent Medill professor David Protess, the instructor of the Innocence Project course, a subpoena May 20 to appear in Cook County's Circuit Court on June 11 with the requested materials. Protess and his students retained the services of Richard J. O'Brien and Linda R. Friedlieb of Sidley Austin LLP, and they are attempting to quash the subpoena on the grounds that the students are protected by the Illinois Reporter's Privilege Act and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), according to the Medill Innocence Project's Web site.

The prosecution argued in its response brief filed Sept. 14 that "... the definition of a reporter from the act appears to exclude Protess and his students. A reporter must be in the business of regularly collecting, writing, or editing news for publication via a news medium."

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte said the students were gathering news and "the fact that they were under the umbrella of a class and not in a salaried position" shouldn't matter." The Illinois statute is one of the broader statutes," LoMonte said. "It covers you based on the newsgatherer function you're engaged in. I don't think there's any dispute that that's what these students were doing."

John Lavine, dean of the Medill School of Journalism, said the claim that the students were not qualified journalists was "ironic" given Medill's status as a highly regarded journalism school.

"The Medill School of Journalism is one of the country's oldest and finest schools of journalism," Lavine said. "We believe in journalism in the real world, so Medill students and faculty have had their journalism published in major print outlets, had it broadcast in major broadcast outlets, not simply in Chicago but across this country and around the world. ... For the last 88 years our journalism has been in the New York Times, in the Chicago Tribune, on air, and the list goes on and on and on. So to suddenly now claim that these students and their professor are not journalists just flies in the face of the facts of almost the last nine decades."

Don Craven, acting executive director of the Illinois Press Association, said in an Oct. 18 article in the Chicago Tribune that he questions the motives of the prosecution.

"They're either trying to undermine the investigation, or they're trying to undermine the entire project," Craven said.

In a statement made at the City Club of Chicago and quoted in an Oct. 20 Tribune article, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez said all notes taken by the students are relevant and necessary to the investigation.

"If you're going to put yourself into the role of an investigator, then you need to turn over whatever your notes are," Alvarez said.

Protess said in the Tribune he and his students had turned over all on-the-record interviews and information related to the case but that they would not hand over materials related to the class, like grades, to Illinois assistant state's attorneys.

"I don't think it's any of the state's business to know the state of mind of my students," Protess said. "Prosecutors should be more concerned with the wrongful conviction of Anthony McKinney than with my students' grades."

Calls to the assistant state's attorneys working on the case were not returned by press time.

Medill School of Journalism, news, Northwestern University