PRESS RELEASE: SPLC urges court to dismiss subpoena requesting Northwestern student journalists’ records

The Student Press Law Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief today onbehalf of a coalition of journalism organizations supporting the right ofstudent journalists at Northwestern University’s Medill Innocence Projectto safeguard their notes, interview tapes and other confidential newsgatheringmaterials under the Illinois Reporter’s Privilege Act.

The law firm of Baker & Hostetler LLP filed the brief Monday in CookCounty Circuit Court in Chicago in the case of The People of the State ofIllinois v. Anthony McKinney. SPLC attorneys prepared the brief on behalf ofa coalition of leading media organizations that represent the interests ofcollege journalists, including the Society of Professional Journalists, CollegeMedia Advisers, Inc., and the Association for Education in Journalism and MassCommunication.

The brief urges the Court to quash a State Attorney’s subpoena forthe student journalists’ confidential work product, gathered in theirinvestigation into the 1978 murder conviction of Anthony McKinney. Thestudents’ work, published on the Medill Innocence Project website, raiseddoubts about the legitimacy of McKinney’s conviction and helped win a newcourt hearing for McKinney, who was convicted in the shooting death of asecurity guard.

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank D. LoMonte, an attorney,said the students are “reporters” as defined by the state shield lawand are entitled to its protections. The shield law is designed to safeguard theintegrity of newsgathering by allowing reporters to keep their unpublishednewsgathering materials confidential, unless a court finds an overriding needfor disclosure of information that is available through no other route.

“These student journalists were actively engaged in collectingdocuments and interviewing witnesses with the intention of informing the public,and that is all that the Illinois shield law requires,” LoMonte said.”Student journalists are uniquely vulnerable to pressure from governmentauthorities, and they are perhaps the journalists most in need of shield-lawprotection. The work of Professor David Protess and his students at theInnocence Project is incredibly valuable to society, and it would not bepossible if his reporters were unable to promise their sourcesconfidentiality.” The SPLC’s brief states: “No matter howthey are compensated and for what medium they write, when students performreporting functions, they are entitled to protection against the compelledproduction of their newsgathering materials and fishing expeditions into theirmotives.”

“The student journalists’ work sheds light on an essentialgovernment function, fulfilling a need not fully met by any other media outlet.The students’ ability to gain access to information through independentinterviews of witnesses, and the protection of their source materials that areproduced as a result of these interviews, are necessary to ensure they caninform the citizens of this state about the efficiency or failings of thecriminal justice system. In short, this vital journalistic work is exactly thetype of work for which the reporters’ privilege was designed,” thebrief states.

The SPLC concludes: “Without the protections of the Act, stories thatare important to the citizens of Illinois may never get investigated orpublished. Informants’ tips will dry up if there is no assurance ofanonymity. The work of student journalists informs the community as a whole, andthe failure to extend the Act’s protections to students would cause harmto the public interest.”

Attorney Erin Bolan Hines of Baker & Hostetler filed the brief, whichwas prepared with the assistance of SPLC volunteer attorney Robert Bertsche ofBoston, a veteran First Amendment lawyer.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating highschool and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied inthe First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering importantissues free from censorship. The Center provides free information andeducational materials for student journalists and their teachers on a widevariety of legal topics.

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Frank LoMonte, Esq.Wayne Pollock, Esq.703.807.1904