Updated 3:30 a.m. 3/20/11:
Northwestern told Medill Innocence Project Director David Protess early last week that he will not be teaching his investigative journalism class in the spring. The move comes during a complicated falling-out between the famed professor and the university over the ongoing trial of Anthony McKinney, who is serving a life sentence for a murder the Innocence Project says he did not commit.
The class, which works with the Innocence Project to investigate cases of inmates who may have been wrongly imprisoned, fell under legal scrutiny when Cook County prosecutors subpoenaed class documents in 2009, alleging that students broke the law while reporting.
Protess and the university initially fought the subpoena, saying that reporter’s privilege protected documents not already shared with the prosecution and McKinney’s attorneys at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School.
According to the Chicago Tribune, when one of McKinney’s lawyers found documents she had not shared with prosecutors — thinking they had been lost or thrown away — Northwestern began pushing for Protess to comply with the subpoena. As The Daily Northwestern reported in October, university officials alleged that Protess had waived reporter’s privilege for all student memos written between 2003 and 2006 — a claim Protess has disputed.
In February, The Daily Northwestern reported that Protess turned thousands of documents over to Northwestern attorneys for review.
Robert Stephenson, the attorney who represents two of the inmates whose cases the Innocence Project investigated last quarter, said in an email obtained by North by Northwestern that he has asked his clients not to work with spring quarter’s investigative journalism students.
Stephenson said in a phone interview that his “clients’ comfort level is no longer sufficient” to continue working with the class without Protess — whom Stephenson also represents.
In a statement issued Friday, university spokesman Al Cubbage did not address the removal directly, but instead reiterated that Northwestern has been reviewing the documents Protess supplied to the university. “The laudable goal of the Innocence Project would not justify any improper actions that may have been taken by Professor Protess,” Cubbage said.
On Tuesday, students who had registered for the class, JOUR 373, received an email from Medill Senior Director of Undergraduate Education Michele Bitoun saying that professor and former Washington Post investigative journalist Alec Klein, who taught the class fall quarter 2010, would teach instead of Protess in the spring.
Protess wrote in a series of emails to North by Northwestern that he did not know why he was swapped for another professor. “One of the main problems with the administration’s decision is its complete lack of transparency,” he wrote on Saturday. “I still haven’t been told why I won’t be allowed to teach next quarter, and I still will teach the class if they change their minds.”
He wrote that even if he is not reinstated to teach the course spring quarter, “I will continue to investigate the cases of wrongfully convicted prisoners, perhaps with student volunteers and my staff.”
The eight students enrolled in the class responded Thursday afternoon by emailing a petition to Bitoun in which they threatened to consider dropping the class if Protess is not reinstated.
“If removing Protess is part of an effort by the University to discipline him for defending the integrity of the Innocence Project to which he and decades of students have given so much,” the email said, “please know that you are not punishing Prof Protess half as much as you are his students, and the two men still sitting behind bars.”
Medill senior Jared Hoffman, a student enrolled in the class who has been one of the driving forces behind the petition, wrote in an email to North by Northwestern that he felt that the university had broken its promise to its students. “I see no reason why I should have to stay in a course that I didn’t sign up for,” he wrote. “I haven’t resolved to drop the course yet, but do believe dropping it is a fair response.”
Hoffman wrote in an email to Klein Thursday that the petition “has nothing to do with your capabilities of teaching this course.” Klein said in an email that he could not comment further. Bitoun and Medill Dean John Lavine also declined to comment.
Alumni have also responded. Medill alum Tim Brightbill (Medill ‘87) posted a petition online late Friday afternoon demanding that Medill and Northwestern explain the removal. As of early Sunday morning, more than 170 people had signed their names to the petition.
“We are writing to request a public explanation of the facts surrounding the apparent removal of Professor Protess,” the petition reads. “In particular, we would like to know the reasons for Professor Protess’ removal, and your explanation of why this action was necessary and is in the best interests of Medill and Northwestern.”
Brightbill, who took Protess’ investigative journalism course before the founding of the Innocence Project, called the class “a cornerstone of Medill.” He said alumni ought to know why Protess was not able to teach the class.
“Obviously this is a complicated situation,” he said. “We don’t have all the facts now.” Now a lawyer, Brightbill said he understands if the university cannot talk publicly about an ongoing case. But, he said, Medill “is supposed to be about finding the facts and communicating them.”
Dear Prof Bitoun,
We are writing to express our deepest disappointment at the news that Professor David Protess will not be teaching Jour 373 this spring.
As current and prospective students, we respectfully request that the school reconsider a decision to remove our professor from a position in which he has accomplished an incredible amount of good and taught so much.
In conversations we had with Prof Protess prior to your announcement today, he never once intimated that he would not be teaching spring quarter. He helped strategize reporting agendas for both of the current cases into the next term, indicating he had every intention of working with us as we saw them through. Because of this, we can only surmise that this decision, for him not to return next quarter, wasn’t his own. He has refused to participate in our efforts to have him reinstated as our instructor. We faithfully submit that the following petition represents the interests and requests of the students alone.
If removing Protess is part of an effort by the University to discipline him for defending the integrity of the Innocence Project to which he and decades of students have given so much, please know that you are not punishing Prof Protess half as much as you are his students, and the two men still sitting behind bars. Realize that the school is jeopardizing last quarter’s progress at the worst possible moment for these two cases. In the past month, one reporting team acquired an eyewitness’s recantation, only the second time in the course’s history that a recantation was made in a case’s first quarter of reporting. This groundbreaking work was guided by Protess and puts us within reach of obtaining justice for Stanley Wrice, currently serving a 100-year prison sentence.
For those of us who have spent a quarter with Prof Protess already, he and his class have had a profound impact on us and we took the class a second quarter because it meant getting to work with him again. For those of us who are new to the class, we applied expecting Protess as our professor and because it is one of the most coveted opportunities for undergraduates at Medill. Below are responses from new students:
“I was really disappointed when I heard about the professor change. I really looked forward to taking the course with him and would love it if there was something we could do to make that happen!”
“I was also really disappointed to see that David Protess would no longer be our instructor. That was one my main reasons for applying for the class.”
“Protess was the reason I signed up for the class (and decided not to apply during the Fall). Medill advertised this class under Protess’ name, which has a particularly powerful brand.”
Please take stock of the reasoning behind your decision in this case. In our minds, it was not made in consideration of the best interests of the students, past, present or future. Nor does it behoove the work of the Innocence Project, which has played a significant role in two major victories for justice in the past few weeks alone: the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hank Skinner case and the abolition of the Death Penalty in Illinois. Finally your decision could stand in the way of justice for two men whose hope for freedom is sustained by this project.
If the school does not see fit to rectify this error in judgment, we would consider it a proportional response to drop the course entirely and continue work on these cases through another avenue.
Please don’t punish your own students for something we have had no control over. Let’s make this about providing the best learning opportunity and educational experience that the Medill School of Journalism can offer. The only way you can do that is to reconsider your decision and let us have the professor we all signed for and the professor we deserve.
We submit this petition to you, respectfully.
There have been recent media reports regarding the conduct of David Protess, a professor of journalism in Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and the Medill Innocence Project, which he directs. Northwestern has been conducting its own review of Professor Protess and the actions and practices of the Innocence Project. That review began last fall after questions arose regarding the accuracy and completeness of information supplied to the University by Professor Protess. That information served as the basis for Northwestern’s response to subpoenas issued by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.
The underlying court case in which the subpoenas were issued involved a post-conviction petition by a prisoner named Anthony McKinney. From Fall Quarter 2003 through Spring Quarter 2006, Medill students in Professor Protess’ Investigative Journalism class, working in conjunction with the Medill Innocence Project, researched the facts surrounding the conviction of Mr. McKinney.
The work of Professor Protess and the Medill Innocence Project has gained national recognition and brought credit to Northwestern and Medill. More importantly, that work has helped free wrongfully convicted individuals from prison. However, the laudable goal of the Innocence Project would not justify any improper actions that may have been taken by Professor Protess.
More to come.
Editor’s note: This version of the story has been corrected to clarify the dispute over documents given to McKinney’s lawyers.