Student journalists need shield law protection

When journalists revealed irregularities about an Indiana high school's asbestos abatement program -- including one janitor's admission that he was told to spray water into the air in advance of a visit by state air-quality inspectors, a known method of deceiving pollutant tests -- their disclosures sparked an immediate investigation.

Of the journalists.

The lead reporter on the story was ordered to turn over his unpublished photos and his e-mails, potentially jeopardizing the identity of anonymous sources. Had he worked for the Indianapolis Star, he'd have had the best media lawyers in the state fighting the order all the way up to the Indiana Supreme Court, invoking the privilege of the Indiana shield law.

But he didn't -- he worked for the Munsonian, Muncie Central High School's student paper. And because of the force of intimidation that a school can bring to bear on frightened students, the reporter reluctantly complied, feeling he had no choice.

Students are America's most vulnerable journalists.

If you are a professional reporter facing punishment for refusing to disclose confidential information, you know that you will get a chance to call a lawyer, you know that you will get a court hearing, and you know that the First Amendment community will rally to your defense. As a student, you can be confident of none of these things.

To be sure, there have been some encouraging developments. A California court ruled last July that a college journalist -- even without a paying journalism job or a freelance contract -- was entitled to withhold his unpublished crime-scene photographs from police under a broad application of California's shield law. And it appears that the White House and Senate Democratic leadership are -- finally -- in accord on an expansive federal reporters' privilege that will protect the confidentiality of source materials even if the reporter is not a salaried professional.

Yet, even at a time when students are being relied on to fill the information gap left by downsized news outlets, student journalists continue having to fight for recognition of their legitimacy.

Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess is battling to fend off an extraordinarily broad subpoena seeking all of the background material compiled by he and his students at the Medill Innocence Project in their investigation into the questionable murder conviction of Anthony McKinney.

State prosecutors contend that the Medill students are not entitled to withhold confidential material under the Illinois reporter shield law because (among other reasons), they are not actual reporters. In a 25-page court filing seeking to enforce its subpoena, the State's Attorney's Office dismissively refers to an investigation by ''the school,'' but never once refers to the student investigators as ''journalists.''Are the students at Medill ''real'' journalists? Gee, I don't know

-- do you consider getting 11 people wrongfully convicted of crimes released from prison over the last 10 years to be ''real'' enough journalism for you?

There are legitimate policy arguments for drafting and applying shield laws with reasonable limitations to guard against their abuse to frustrate justice. But we should be beyond the point where your authenticity as a journalist is defined by who signs your paycheck. Shield laws are about protecting the integrity of the newsgathering process, and unpaid students increasingly work at the heart of that process.

reports, Winter 2009-10