ASNE President Protests Subpoena of Medill Student Records

By: Joe Strupp

Martin Kaiser, president of the American Society of News Editors and editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is protesting the recent subpoena of records related to the investigations of convicted criminals at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Kaiser sent a letter to Illinois State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez that opposes the recent move by her office to get access to the records of the Medill Innocence Project, which has uncovered evidence of wrongful convictions in numerous cases.

“We are not sure whether we are more disturbed by your requests for notes from off-the-record interviews and interviews conducted under a promise of confidentiality or by your request for information relating to the students themselves, including grade and evaluation- related information, expense-related information and unpublished student notes,” Kaiser wrote on behalf of ASNE. “The former is nothing more than an attempt to take a shortcut in research that should be done by your office, while the latter appears to be an effort to harass these students, their professor and their University into an ultimate goal of submission.”

The entire letter is below:

**********************
Anita Alvarez, Esq.
State’s Attorney
Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office
500 Richard J. Daley Center
Chicago, IL 60602

Dear Ms. Alvarez:

The American Society of News Editors writes to convey its disappointment with your decision to subpoena records relating to investigations made by students in the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University into the criminal conviction of Anthony McKinney for a murder committed more than 30 years ago. These subpoenas are a wide- ranging, unfounded sweep for information that we believe violates the Illinois reporter’s privilege statute and threatens key tenets of journalism and justice in this case.

ASNE, founded in 1922, has 600 members across the United States, Canada, and other countries in the Americas. In addition to promoting freedom of the press, we are committed to developing the next generation of journalists. That is why we are particularly distressed that you appear to question the ethics and motives of these journalists through actions that could alter the superlative investigative work they have done or prevent similar results that other student reporters might achieve. These issues transcend this case and affect journalism students across the country.

Any reasonable interpretation of the Illinois reporter’s privilege statute must conclude that these students are covered by that Act and that your request clearly exceeds the statute’s limitations. The Illinois Compiled Statutes defines a reporter as “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.” These students not only meet this definition but, based on the results we have seen, excel at their craft. Illinois law allows this privilege to be broken only when the information sought cannot be obtained by other means and its disclosure is essential to the public interest.

We are not sure whether we are more disturbed by your requests for notes from off-the-record interviews and interviews conducted under a promise of confidentiality or by your request for information relating to the students themselves, including grade and evaluation- related information, expense-related information and unpublished student notes. The former is nothing more than an attempt to take a shortcut in research that should be done by your office, while the latter appears to be an effort to harass these students, their professor and their University into an ultimate goal of submission.

Clearly, these records do not qualify as “essential” to the credibility of the witnesses that will actually be called in this case. If you truly want to assess witness credibility, then you should engage those witnesses yourself. Do not question the hard work and proven results of these students. We are convinced that your office would not cast similar aspersions on the mindset of a professional journalist; such an inference would be clearly irrelevant and wildly inappropriate.

It is our sincere hope that you reconsider these subpoenas. The slim likelihood that they will produce essential information that cannot be found elsewhere is clearly outweighed by the public interest in protecting reporting of this type on matters of public concern.

Sincerely,

W. Martin Kaiser
ASNE President

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