Student journalists need shield law protection

When journalists revealed irregularitiesabout an Indiana high school’s asbestos abatement program –including one janitor’s admission that he was told to spray water into theair in advance of a visit by state air-quality inspectors, a known method ofdeceiving pollutant tests — their disclosures sparked an immediateinvestigation.

Of the journalists.

The lead reporter on the story wasordered to turn over his unpublished photos and his e-mails, potentiallyjeopardizing the identity of anonymous sources. Had he worked for theIndianapolisStar, he’d have had the bestmedia lawyers in the state fighting the order all the way up to the IndianaSupreme Court, invoking the privilege of the Indiana shield law.

But he didn’t — he worked fortheMunsonian,Muncie Central High School’s student paper. And because of the force ofintimidation that a school can bring to bear on frightened students, thereporter reluctantly complied, feeling he had no choice.

Students are America’s mostvulnerable journalists.

If you are a professional reporter facingpunishment for refusing to disclose confidential information, you know that youwill get a chance to call a lawyer, you know that you will get a court hearing,and you know that the First Amendment community will rally to your defense. As astudent, you can be confident of none of these things.

To be sure, there have been someencouraging developments. A California court ruled last July that a collegejournalist — even without a paying journalism job or a freelance contract– was entitled to withhold his unpublished crime-scene photographs frompolice under a broad application of California’s shield law. And itappears that the White House and Senate Democratic leadership are –finally — in accord on an expansive federal reporters’ privilegethat will protect the confidentiality of source materials even if the reporteris not a salaried professional.

Yet, even at a time when students arebeing relied on to fill the information gap left by downsized news outlets,student journalists continue having to fight for recognition of theirlegitimacy.

Northwestern University journalismprofessor David Protess is battling to fend off an extraordinarily broadsubpoena seeking all of the background material compiled by he and his studentsat the Medill Innocence Project in their investigation into the questionablemurder conviction of Anthony McKinney.

State prosecutors contend that the Medillstudents are not entitled to withhold confidential material under the Illinoisreporter shield law because (among other reasons), they are not actualreporters. In a 25-page court filing seeking to enforce its subpoena, theState’s Attorney’s Office dismissively refers to an investigation by”the school,” but never once refers to the student investigators as”journalists.”Arethe students at Medill ”real” journalists? Gee, I don’t know

— do you consider getting 11 people wrongfully convicted of crimesreleased from prison over the last 10 years to be ”real” enoughjournalism for you?

There are legitimate policy arguments fordrafting and applying shield laws with reasonable limitations to guard againsttheir abuse to frustrate justice. But we should be beyond the point where yourauthenticity as a journalist is defined by who signs your paycheck. Shield lawsare about protecting the integrity of the newsgathering process, and unpaidstudents increasingly work at the heart of that process.