MICHIGAN — Eleven media outlets, among them the Michigan StateUniversity student newspaper, scored a victory in September when the statesupreme court unanimously ruled against an East Lansing prosecutor whosubpoenaed the media’s footage of a March 1999 campus riot.
Ingham County prosecutor Stuart Dunnings wanted the video and stillphotography of nine TV stations and two newspapers to help build his casesagainst participants in the riots, which broke out on the East Lansingcampus following Michigan Stateís loss to Duke University in the1999 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 criminalactivity. The court disagreed and, citing Michigan statutory law, ruledthe media outlets may keep all footage that has never been published orbroadcast. The statute, called the Investigative Subpoena Act, allows lawenforcement agencies and officials to subpoena only material that has alreadybeen published or broadcast or material that is related to an investigationinvolving 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 couldstrip reporters of their privilege.
“Neither is present in this case,” the court said. “This material hasnot 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 representativesare not subject to an investigative subpoena.”
“We win. We win. We win,” said an excited Berl Schwartz, adviser andgeneral manager of The State News, Michigan State’s student newspaper.
The victory did not come without a price, though. The News rackedup more than $9,200 in legal fees during the battle, which began in a Michigantrial court and rose through the state court of appeals before landingin front of the supreme court.