Judge tosses subpoena for Chicago student journalists' notes

ILLINOIS — Collegestudents in Illinois have been given a seat at the professional journalists’table after a judge used the state’s shield law to protect student journalistsfor possibly the first time ever last week.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Diane Cannon quashedsubpoenas June 21 after ruling that the Illinois Reporter’s Privilege Actprotects both professional and student journalists from revealing sources andinformation in court.

Blaine Kimrey of the law firm Lathrop & Gage and counselfor The Loyola Phoenix, said thejudge never questioned a student newspaper being within the shield law’s scope.He said the case is the first he is aware of that specifically extends theact’s protection to student journalists.

“It is implicit in her ruling that she believes studentnewspapers are covered by the act,” Kimrey said.

In March attorneys for criminal defendant Kevin McAndrewssubpoenaed the Phoenix, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune for journalisticmaterial relating to the three papers’ coverage of the beating of a gay man inChicago.

McAndrews is one of three men facing hate crime charges,suspected of beating the man on Jan. 10 because of his sexual orientation.

The Phoenix — thestudent newspaper at Loyola University Chicago — covered the beating and criminalinvestigation because one of the men being charged, Sean Little, was a studentat Loyola at the time of the beating.

The student newspaper ran two articles on the beating: onein-depth piece about how the university was handling Little’s status as astudent who faced a felony hate crime charge and another story about Little nolonger being a registered Loyola student after the university judicial processended in late March.

University officials told the Phoenix after the judicial hearings that they would neither confirmnor deny if Little had been expelled from the school.

Kimrey, along with lawyers for the two professional papers,objected to the subpoena on several grounds including reporter’s shield law,which guarantees reporters protectionfrom having to disclose sources and information in court — except in particularinstances.

In response, McAndrews’ lawyer, Dan Coyne of theChicago-Kent College of Law legal clinic, filed a motion to strip the papers’protection under the act.

Kimrey said Coyne argued that the information held by thepapers could possibly reveal inconsistencies in what the victim of the beatingtold authorities and what he told reporters.

Coyne wanted notes, story drafts and all journalistic workproduced in connection with the stories in order to search for evidence thatwould prove the victim lied under oath.

On June 21, Cannon struck down Coyne’s motion, ruling thathis request for information was too speculative to divest the three papers’shield law protection.

In signing an order drafted by the attorney for the Tribune, the judge also quashed Coyne’sthree subpoenas.

Kimrey said that the state’s shield law specificallyrequires that someone looking to divest a paper’s shield law rights prove thereis reason to believe the newspaper has more information that it did not releasein its published articles.

“I would say it came down to necessity and [McAndrews]didn’t show he needed it. It is hard to say you need something when you don’teven know what it is,” Kimrey said.

Coyne is currently on vacation and was not available for comment.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center said previous court decisionsin the state involving the shield law have been “generous” in applying theshield law and that respect for student media is growing across the nation.

“Illinois’ act, on its face, does not look all that broad.So, it is not automatic that a student media outlet will be covered,” LoMontesaid.

“I think it is becoming more widely accepted that studentmedia are as legitimate as many paid professional outlets. But, you shouldnever take it for granted. Always be sure of the legal precedent in the state.”

The Society of Professional Journalists recognized the Phoenix as a high-caliber studentnewspaper, naming it the top non-daily student newspaper of the group’s Region5 member schools in its 2010 Mark of Excellence awards.

Kimrey said he used the Phoenix’sreputation as an award-winning student publication in his brief and his oralargument to bolster the paper’s legitimacy and eligibility for protection underthe shield law.

“It is easier for a judge to recognize a student outlet asbeing quote-unquote ‘real’ if it is well established, it publishes regularlyand it has a serious reputation,” LoMonte said.