College newspaper defeats subpoena for reporter's notes

ILLINOIS – The student newspaper at Southern Illinois Universityat Carbondale successfully defeated a May 17 attempt by the WilliamsonCounty Public Defender’s office to subpoena a student reporter’snotes. The public defender was hoping to gain access to all notestaken by the reporter while covering the murder of a SouthernIllinois University student.

“The public defender essentially wanted to show someone onthe witness stand was lying,” said Amy Gherna, an attorneyat Craven and Thornton law firm in Springfield, Ill., who representedthe student newspaper. “He believed one of the reporter’ssources told him the opposite of what was going to be said onthe stand, which is not a compelling reason to divest a reporterof privilege.”

The murdered student was stabbed to death on April 4. The policereporter for the DailyEgyptian, the student newspaper, wrote two in-depth storiesabout the case the week of the murder. Within 10 days, the publicdefender’s office served the reporter with a subpoena requestinghis notes be turned over on April 26 before a judge, accordingto Lance Speere, faculty adviser for the Daily Egyptian.

Craven and Thornton was quick to take up the reporter’s cause,and Gherna argued before the judge that the subpoena would violatethe Illinois reporter’s privilege statute as well as the commonlaw special witness doctrine. While both laws provide the samebasic shield protection for reporters, the common law specialwitness doctrine offers the added advantage of being judge-madelaw.

“The common law approach means that if a judge were to decidethat the reporter’s privilege statute is no good in a particularcase, you can point to this doctrine and say, ‘Well, your fellowjudges also seem to think this is good law’,” Gherna said.

While the judge in this case did invite the public defender tofile a petition to divest the reporter of his privilege, Ghernasaid such an appeal would be difficult for the public defenderto argue.

Speere, meanwhile, is fairly confident the Daily Egyptian hasheard the last of the matter.

“There’s probably an 80-90 percent chance we won’t hear anythingmore about it,” Speere said.