MICHIGAN — It has been a game of tug-of-war between a student photographerat Michigan State University and a Michigan prosecutor trying to gain accessto photographs taken by the student journalist during March riots on theMichigan State campus.
A Michigan circuit court in May overturned a lower court’s decisionthat upheld a subpoena that would have forced Michigan State’s studentnewspaper, The State News, and 10 other commercial media organizationsto hand over all of their photos of the riot scene to Ingham County prosecutingattorney Stuart Dunnings. The riots erupted after the school’s lossto Duke University in the 1999 NCAA basketball tournament.
The lower court judge had reasoned that Michigan’s shield law, whichprovides reporters with an absolute privilege against the disclosure ofthe identities of confidential sources, did not apply in this case becauseno confidential informants are involved when photographs are taken at apublic gathering.
Dunnings was attempting to have an investigative subpoena issued. He had already tried, unsuccessfully, to have a standard subpoena issued,but the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in favor of the media in May. Investigative subpoenas are usually used for discovery purposes; howeverthe media are specifically exempted from being subjected to such subpoenas.Despite this stated exception for the media, Dunnings succeeded when trialjudge David Jordan ordered the media groups to turn over their photos onceagain.
The media groups then appealed once again to the Ingham County CircuitCourt, where Judge Lawrence Glazer overturned Jordan’s decision and ruledin favor of the media.
State News adviser Berl Schwartz said the prosecutor is now attemptingto appeal to the Michigan Court of Appeals, and he said The State Newsdoes not plan on surrendering until the paper finds itself with no furtherlegal recourse.
Schwartz said the situation has Michigan State student journalists concernedthat if they are forced to give up their photos, their credibility as objectivenews gatherers will suffer.
“We’re not in the business of helping the police make their case,” Schwartzsaid. “We’re here to serve a higher purpose of journalism by beingas neutral as possible.”