Northwestern journalism students fight subpoenas

ILLINOIS — Journalism students working on the Medill Innocence Project atNorthwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism are fightingsubpoenas requesting their grades, off-the-record interviews, electroniccommunications, notes, course syllabi, grading criteria for the course andreceipts for expenses that students incurred for their investigation of the caseof Anthony McKinney, who was convicted and jailed in 1978 for allegedly shootinga security guard in Harvey, Ill.

Illinois assistant state’s attorneys sent Medill professor DavidProtess, the instructor of the Innocence Project course, a subpoena May 20 toappear in Cook County’s Circuit Court on June 11 with the requestedmaterials. Protess and his students retained the services of Richard J.O’Brien and Linda R. Friedlieb of Sidley Austin LLP, and they areattempting to quash the subpoena on the grounds that the students are protectedby the Illinois Reporter’s Privilege Act and the Family Educational Rightsand Privacy Act (FERPA), according to the Medill Innocence Project’s Website.

The prosecution argued in its response brief filed Sept. 14 that “…the definition of a reporter from the act appears to exclude Protess and hisstudents. 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 studentswere gathering news and “the fact that they were under the umbrella of aclass and not in a salaried position” shouldn’tmatter.” The Illinois statute is one of the broader statutes,”LoMonte said. “It covers you based on the newsgatherer functionyou’re engaged in. I don’t think there’s any dispute thatthat’s what these students were doing.”

John Lavine, dean of the Medill School of Journalism, said the claim thatthe students were not qualified journalists was “ironic” givenMedill’s status as a highly regarded journalism school.

“The Medill School of Journalism is one of the country’s oldestand finest schools of journalism,” Lavine said. “We believe injournalism in the real world, so Medill students and faculty have had theirjournalism published in major print outlets, had it broadcast in major broadcastoutlets, 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, inthe Chicago Tribune, on air, and the list goes on and on and on. So tosuddenly now claim that these students and their professor are not journalistsjust flies in the face of the facts of almost the last ninedecades.”

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

“They’re either trying to undermine the investigation, orthey’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 saidall notes taken by the students are relevant and necessary to theinvestigation.

“If you’re going to put yourself into the role of aninvestigator, then you need to turn over whatever your notes are,” Alvarezsaid.

Protess said in the Tribune he and his students had turned over allon-the-record interviews and information related to the case but that they wouldnot hand over materials related to the class, like grades, to Illinois assistantstate’s attorneys.

“I don’t think it’s any of the state’s business toknow the state of mind of my students,” Protess said. “Prosecutorsshould be more concerned with the wrongful conviction of Anthony McKinney thanwith my students’ grades.”

Calls to the assistant state’s attorneys working on the case were notreturned by press time.