In 1978, Anthony McKinney was convicted and imprisoned for the murder of a security guard in Harvey, Illinois. In 2003, the Medill Innocence project started to investigate his case for potential irregularities that could exonerate him. Through their reporting, student journalists uncovered irregularities that led to state witnesses recanting testimonies and the confession of an alternative suspect.
The Cook County prosecutor’s office subpoenaed the course syllabus, student grades, and personal emails of students at the Medill School of Journalism. The students complained that this violated the Illinois Reporters’ Privilege Act. The Cook County prosecutors argued that student journalists had coerced witnesses to give incorrect information.
With the help of ARN attorney Erin Bolan Hines of Baker & Hostetler LLP, the SPLC filed an amicus brief in support of the student journalists in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Criminal Division in 2010. The brief argued that the Illinois Reporters’ Privilege Act is designed to protect reporters from government officials from intimidating investigative journalists who seek to uncover the truth. In addition, the act clearly states a very broad definition of journalists that covers students. The District Attorneys’ claim that they were participating in a criminal investigation is contrary to the law, the brief argues. Finally, journalists investigating criminal matters need greater protections, since they are often dealing with people who are danger of retaliation.
In 2011, a judge ruled that the students were acting as “investigators in a criminal proceeding,” not as journalists.