CHICAGO — Student journalists have been subpoenaed in a lawsuit filed by the Pearson Family Members Foundation against the University of Chicago. The family wants reporters at The Chicago Maroon, the university’s student newspaper, to turn over 66 pages of internal university documents.
In 2017, a man gave the Maroon documents containing details of an emerging conflict between the university and the Pearsons. The family foundation had concerns about the managing of a $100 million dollar donation it made to the school in 2015. The foundation filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma in March 2018, suing the university to get back $22.9 million of that donation, alleging the money was mismanaged and not used for the purposes they intended.
After the lawsuit was announced, Euirim Choi, the Maroon’s managing editor at the time, used the documents to publish a story about the lawsuit. The article included three pages from the documents with redactions.
The university effectively denied all allegations made by the Pearsons and countersued in April 2018.
Choi, the 2018-19 editor-in-chief, and the Maroon were both subpoenaed in May. Choi said he was not surprised by this.
“When we were originally considering publishing the documents, we understood that there was a possibility that the Pearsons would subpoena us, because we were only publishing three pages of the 66 pages … we thought the Pearsons might be interested in what the other documents have to say surrounding the case,” said Choi.
Choi is the only person from the Maroon who has access to the documents.
Choi found out that he was being subpoenaed in May, right as he was preparing to graduate from the university.
Graduating is always an enjoyable time, and I wanted to take some time to hang out with friends … but unfortunately I’ve been preoccupied with the subpoena.
“We thought the subpoena would come relatively quickly, so we were surprised that the subpoena came quite late in the process,” said Choi.
“Graduating is always an enjoyable time, and I wanted to take some time to hang out with friends … but unfortunately I’ve been preoccupied with the subpoena and kind of worried about it. It’s been a stressful experience.”
Choi contacted the Student Press Law Center and received early legal counsel from Mike Hiestand, Senior Legal Counsel. He later found his own attorney, Matthew Topic, a government transparency and media law lawyer at Loevy and Loevy, who took on the case pro bono. On June 3, Topic filed an objection to the subpoena.
[If] they are allowed to proceed with this subpoena … [it] would set a bad precedent for journalists everywhere.
“What the Pearsons are trying to do here is really not showing the proper respect for journalism or its place in society. [If] they are allowed to proceed with this subpoena and force our client to release information protected [it] would set a bad precedent for journalists everywhere,” said Topic.
Topic said cases like this are fairly common.
“A lot of times parties to a lawsuit find that a convenient way to get information is to issue subpoenas to reporters who have done investigative reporting on something they think is relevant to their case,” said Topic.
“Under the First Amendment and under state statute, you are really only allowed to subpoena reporters for that kind of information in extremely limited circumstances.”
Topic said that it is up to the Pearsons to decide whether they want to go to court over this.
“I think the outcome of this case is particularly important because in Illinois, there’s not a lot of case law surrounding whether student journalists are protected by some of the shield law protections that are commonly available to journalists because the definition of what a journalist means is somewhat vague,” said Choi.
“I’m hoping that if this case goes to court, or at least to motions, that a decision in my favor would ensure that other parties are aware that student journalists are also protected under shield laws. I think that would be very beneficial for college journalists across the state.”
A decision in my favor would ensure that other parties are aware that student journalists are also protected under shield laws.
Lee Harris, the 2019-20 editor-in-chief of the Maroon, declined to comment on the lawsuit at this time. The newspaper has secured legal counsel.
P. Scott Hathaway, the attorney representing the Pearson family, could not be reached for comment.
SPLC reporter Ginny Bixby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 202-974-6318. Follow her on Twitter at @Ginny_Bixby. Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free occasional News Roundup.