By: Allan Wolper
An East Lansing police officer strolled into the newsroom of The State News at Michigan State University (MSU) in early April searching for sources. Could someone give him a list of the journalists who covered the riot that followed MSU’s loss to Duke University in the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament, commonly known as March Madness?
The police wanted the student reporters to testify against some of the thousands of drunken, battling, car-burning rioters, many of whom were MSU students.
The young journalists declined, explaining they cover riots, not participate in them. “We felt they were asking us to commit a crime by giving them that kind of information,” recalls Sharon Terlep, the 20-year-old editor of the 40,000-circulation State News, reportedly the largest campus paper in the United States.
Several days later, East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows and city manager Ted Staton were in the newsroom with another plea to the paper. “They said they needed our testimony and our photos because we had access to students that they didn’t have,” Terlep says quietly. “The students let us observe the riot from their apartments. They talk to us because they know us. We are students, too. The city officials want us to violate a trust. We can’t do that.”
Meadows, a part-time mayor who is an assistant attorney general in Michigan, says the student journalists have a legal obligation to testify in court to what they saw.
He says the resistance by the State News is misplaced because all the subpoenas in the case were issued at the request of several TV news organizations. “The newspeople met with the prosecutors and said they would like to help, but wanted to be served with subpoenas,” Meadows explains.
Meadows does not see the subpoenas as an attack on the First Amendment rights of reporters. “This is not about protecting confidential sources,” Meadows continues. “Reporters are like other people. When they see a crime committed, they must testify to what they saw. We aren’t targeting students, but about 60% of the people who were out there were students. Student journalists are just like any other journalists. They shouldn’t take sides.”
State News journalists are facing legal and ethical concerns that might be even more daunting than the court challenge facing their more seasoned colleagues.
The students believe journalists should risk a jail sentence to protect confidential sources, notes, and unpublished photos. Toward that end, the State News has joined the professionals who are fighting subpoenas for unpublished photos. Therefore, the students have not turned over any of its unpublished photos even though they know the Lansing State Journal gave the prosecutors unpublished photos of a rioter who beat up one of their photographers. Legal sources say the State Journal decision might eventually backfire on the news coalition fighting the subpoenas. “I’m surprised the prosecutors haven’t used it against us,” says one attorney.
But, at the same time, the student newspaper is allowing one of its photographers to testify against people who appeared in his published material.
“I am going on my third subpoena,” says Devon K. Akmon, a 22-year-old senior. “They ask me to identify my photos and to see if I can recall what the individual was doing before and after I took the picture. But that is a big blur. I don’t tell them anything.” Akmon, however, identifies any defendants in court who he has captured on film. “Basically, yes, I tell them if they are in the courtroom,” he says.
And the East Lansing police, aided by the campus cops and the MSU administration, are chipping away at the resistance in the student newsroom.
“I got a call from Detective Monet of the campus police asking me to testify at the trials,” says Patrick Muir, a 21-year-old senior who is spending his summer internship at The Flint (Mich.) Journal. “I told him I wouldn’t consider it unless I was subpoenaed. He said he might get me one.”
Muir interviewed a man who admitted to ripping off the grille of a car and quoted him by name in the paper. “I wrote it. They have it. I don’t understand why they need me,” he says.
The State News’ 12-member board of directors, comprised of professional journalists, faculty, and student representatives, have met frequently since the March 26-29 weekend riot to work out a principled response to the police pressure.
Marcia Van Ness, a retired assistant editorial page editor of the Lansing State Journal, and Rex Thatcher, a retired publisher of The Saginaw (Mich.) News, both offered to spend time in jail, if needed.
But the newspaper discovered most of the community was willing to lock them up if they refuse to give the police the photos and information to prosecute the alleged rioters. “The people here are upset about the riot,” says Van Ness. “They ask, ‘Why aren’t you cooperating?’ I had to explain what the press does. Then they say, ‘Oh, I guess it’s really a tough call.'”
Lucinda Davenport, a professor of journalism at MSU and president of the board of directors, blames the press for not explaining its role properly.
“People might have a different viewpoint if they were passersby at a place where something happened and found out that police were sifting through photos,” says Davenport.
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