While Washington works to protect journalism in all its forms, President Obama’s adopted hometown is doing its best to stifle an investigation into potential miscarriages of justice. For years, students at the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism have investigated possible wrongful convictions in the Illinois justice system, as a part of Project Innocence. These student-run investigations have produced results:
Anthony Porter hugs loved ones after being freed from deathrow.
[Professor David] Portiss and his journalism students have uncovered evidence that freed 11 innocent men, five of them from death row. The Project’s work, which has been featured on “60 Minutes,” “48 Hours,” “Dateline NBC” and the front pages of The New York Times and the Washington Post, has been cited for stimulating a national debate on the death penalty.
Not everyone is thrilled with these results, especially the Cook County District Attorney’s office, which is now doing some investigations of its own–on the program’s reports concerning a 30-year-old murder trial. Most recently, students helped win a new trial for Anthony McKinney, who was convicted in 1978 of gunning down a security guard, after uncovering new evidence that hinted towards his innocence.
The students said they had found, among other things, that two eyewitnesses had recanted their testimony against Mr. McKinney and could not have seen him commit the killing because they were watching a boxing championship (Leon Spinks vs. Muhammad Ali). The students collected an affidavit from a gang member who, they say, confirmed Mr. McKinney’s alibi that he was running away from gang members when the shooting took place.
Now, the state has turned its attention from McKinney to the students that participated in the investigation:
Prosecutors have subpoenaed the grades, grading criteria and syllabus and email messages of students who participated in Northwestern University’s Medill Innocence Project
Prosecutors have even subpoenaed the notes taken by the students in the investigation, which opens the door to additional 1st Amendment questions. The Illinois media shield law protects reporter’s notes and other source material from the state. There is a catch, however:
Whether the shield law covers you depends on whether the law deems you a “reporter,” and on the medium in which you work.
Cook County prosecutors have attempted to bypass media protection laws by classifying the journalism students as members of an “investigative agency,” whose notes and other materials do not enjoy the media “shields” of traditional news outlets. The case carries far reaching implications in America’s common law system as it applies to the definition of a journalist:
If the courts find that Mr. Protess and the journalism school must turn over the student information, they risk being held in contempt if they refuse, said Dick O’Brien, a lawyer who is representing Northwestern.
But if the school gives in to such a demand, say advocates of the Medill Innocence Project and more than 50 similar projects (most involving law schools and legal clinics), the stakes could be still higher, discouraging students from taking part or forcing groups to devote time and money to legal assistance.
The project has attracted its share of defenders in the press and in academia:
Don Craven, acting executive director of the Illinois Press Association, said the request seems harassing at best, and at worst looks like an attempt to discredit the work done by the Innocence Project to ferret out wrongful convictions.
“They’re either trying to undermine the investigation, or they’re trying to undermine the entire project,” Craven said.
Turning over such a wide range of information, he said, would cripple the Innocence Project’s ability to get witnesses to cooperate in the future.
Prosecutors have tried to allay these concerns emphasizing that they share the university’s goal of seeking truth and justice. The students’ work, the DA’s office says, can only help the state achieve a better understanding of Mr. McKinney’s guilt or innocence:
“We’re not trying to delve into areas of privacy or grades,” Ms. Daly said. “Our position is that they’ve engaged in an investigative process, and without any hostility, we’re seeking to get all of the information they’ve developed, just as detectives and investigators turn over.”
The state’s hostility, however, is not the issue–the state’s definition of what constitutes a reporter is the question that prosecutors should be answering, according to the school’s defenders. Luckily, Illinois’ media shield law does just that:
Sec. 8‑902. Definitions.
(a) “Reporter” means any person regularly engaged in the business of collecting, writing or editing news for publication through a news medium on a full‑time or part‑time basis . . . .
(b) “News medium” means any newspaper or other periodical issued at regular intervals whether in print or electronic format and having a general circulation; a news service whether in print or electronic format; a radio station; a television station; a television network; a community antenna television service; and any person or corporation engaged in the making of news reels or other motion picture news for public showing.