A subpoena by the Cook County’s state’s attorney on the reporting notes, interview recordings and academic information of Northwestern students who were part of the Medill Innocence Project has sparked up a legal debate between the university and the County’s prosecutors. While a legal issue over the attorney office’s right to demand the information is clearly at stake, it is not yet certain what the university’s next steps will be, Medill professor Jack C. Doppelt said Tuesday.
The issue came to the forefront on Monday, when the Chicago Tribune published a story that revealed the prosecution office’s subpoena in relation to an ongoing investigation by the Medill Innocence Project, which investigates wrongful convictions under the tutelage of Medill professor David Protess. Northwestern journalism students recently published a story that they say proves the innocence of Anthony McKinney, who was convicted of killing a security guard in 1978 and has been serving a sentence since.
But when, on Monday, the Cook County state’s attorney subpoenaed the students’ grades, notes and recordings of witness interviews, the course syllabus and the even the e-mail exchanges between Protess and his class, a legal issue emerged over the status of the journalism students.
While Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez compared the students to investigators, Northwestern attorney Richard O’Brien said that they are investigative journalists and as such should be protected under the Illinois Reporter’s Privilege Act. The Act gives news reporters the right to refuse to testify as to information or sources obtained during the newsgathering and dissemination process.
While Northwestern has turned over the documents as well as the copies of video and audio tapes related to on-the-record interviews, the university is battling the subpoena on the students’ academic information, which the prosecutor’s office says is relevant to the investigation.
Protess said Monday that he would not comment on the issue until Nov. 10, when the Medill case will be heard.
Meanwhile, Doppelt questioned the relevance of the subpoena.
“The irony about this particular subpoena and the information they want is that this information is so far off the field that it’s not really sources of information about the case,” said Doppelt, who is an expert on media law and ethics at Medill.
He added that the Privilege Act has historically been interpreted very broadly: “It allows anybody who is regularly engaged in the gathering of news and information, either at a school or part-time basis, to be considered a reporter who would fall under the statute. And even that provision…doesn’t require them to work for a living to be regularly engaged so that a project like this – and the students who are involved in a project like this – both the class and the investigation, are regularly engaged in doing that.”
According to Doppelt, there are number of potential next steps in this issue, and it is still unclear how the case will shape up. A hearing on Nov. 10 will most likely determine whether Northwestern and Protess will have to turn over the information demanded by the prosecution. A trial judge might also decide whether McKinney will get a new trial. The prosecution also has a number of potential scenarios based on the Nov. 10 hearing.
“I see no consequence to the students or professor Protess. I see no scenario in which there is [content] in the emails… if there are any emails, that can get them in trouble,” Doppelt said. “What I think is more likely: there’s nothing in the emails under any consequence to anyone, yet Professor Protess and the students will refuse to turn them over on principle.”
More to come.
Kaitlyn Jahelka and Lorraine K. Lee contributed to this story.