Dozens of journalists and journalism professors signed a letter released Wednesday seconding Medill professor David Protess’ calls for an independent investigation of his March removal from the classroom and Northwestern University’s later statement accusing Protess of misleading the school.
Thirty-five people signed the letter, which echoed Protess’ calls for an independent review and demanded that university officials hold a public meeting to explain the situation.
“We are deeply concerned about what appears to be a retaliatory campaign by law enforcement authorities and Northwestern University against long-time investigative journalist and Professor David Protess,” the letter read.
In March, Medill Dean John Lavine removed Protess from teaching his investigative journalism class for spring quarter, prompting demands by students and alumni for an explanation. The university responded weeks later in an April 6 press release alleging that Protess made misleading statements about how many student memos he shared with defense attorneys representing Anthony McKinney, a man convicted of murder whose case was reopened after a 2003-2006 investigation by Protess’ students uncovered new evidence that could point to McKinney’s innocence.
Cook County prosecutors subpoenaed memos and other documents relating to the class investigation in 2009. Protess and the university fought the subpoena, saying the memos were protected by Illinois laws shielding journalists from giving up confidential sources. After hiring law firm Jenner & Block to investigate Protess’ situation, the university now holds that Protess waived so-called “reporter’s privilege” on all memos when he shared them with McKinney’s defense.
“Protess knowingly misrepresented the facts and his actions to the University, its attorneys and the dean of Medill on many documented occasions,” the April 6 university statement read. It added, “He caused the University to take on what turned out to be an unsupportable case and unwittingly misrepresent the situation both to the Court and to the State.”
Protess has long maintained that he couldn’t remember how many student memos he shared. He called Northwestern’s allegations a “smear campaign” and said the university based its statement on emails that were taken out of context. A week later, he demanded an independent investigation started by the Northwestern Faculty Senate.
Brant Houston, the Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he began drafting a letter with four other signers about a week ago. He said he and other investigative journalists were concerned that Protess was not allowed to attend an April 6 meeting of Medill faculty in which Lavine and Provost Daniel Linzer presented the results of the Jenner & Block investigation.
Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor from George Washington University who helped write the letter, said, “All that from a distance seems to have a foul odor.”
Feldstein and Houston both said they worried that Northwestern’s statement might weaken support for investigative journalism programs by universities across the country. Feldstein called Protess’ removal “pretty alarming for all of us.”
“I appreciate the support of so many distinguished investigative journalists and educators and share their call for an independent investigation,” Protess, who is on leave, wrote in an email accompanying the letter. He said it was the only comment he would offer on the subject. “Hopefully, Northwestern officials will cooperate with the investigation that is sure to come.”
Feldstein and Houston said it was too early to say whether they would lead or take part in any investigation. Houston said that even if Northwestern’s allegations turn out to be true, he wants the public to see all the evidence.
“If they’re right, they’re right,” Houston said. “Let’s have a fair and open hearing about this.”