Coalition files amicus brief supporting Northwestern University students with records under subpoena

A friend-of-the-court brief has been filed in support of Northwestern University journalism students working on a project seeking to prove the innocence of convicts under sentence for murder. The State Attorney is seeking their notes, interview tapes and other records to discredit their work on the project. -DB

Student Press Law Center
Press Release
January 11, 2010

The Student Press Law Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief today on behalf of a coalition of journalism organizations supporting the right of student journalists at Northwestern University’s Medill Innocence Project to safeguard their notes, interview tapes and other confidential newsgathering materials under the Illinois Reporter’s Privilege Act.

The law firm of Baker & Hostetler LLP filed the brief Monday in Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago in the case of The People of the State of Illinois v. Anthony McKinney. SPLC attorneys prepared the brief on behalf of a coalition of leading media organizations that represent the interests of college journalists, including the Society of Professional Journalists, College Media Advisers, Inc., and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

The brief urges the Court to quash a State Attorney’s subpoena for the student journalists’ confidential work product, gathered in their investigation into the 1978 murder conviction of Anthony McKinney. The students’ work, published on the Medill Innocence Project website, raised doubts about the legitimacy of McKinney’s conviction and helped win a new court hearing for McKinney, who was convicted in the shooting death of a security guard.

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank D. LoMonte, an attorney, said the students are “reporters” as defined by the state shield law and are entitled to its protections. The shield law is designed to safeguard the integrity of newsgathering by allowing reporters to keep their unpublished newsgathering materials confidential, unless a court finds an overriding need for disclosure of information that is available through no other route.

“These student journalists were actively engaged in collecting documents and interviewing witnesses with the intention of informing the public, and that is all that the Illinois shield law requires,” LoMonte said. “Student journalists are uniquely vulnerable to pressure from government authorities, and they are perhaps the journalists most in need of shield-law protection. The work of Professor David Protess and his students at the Innocence Project is incredibly valuable to society, and it would not be possible if his reporters were unable to promise their sources confidentiality.”

The SPLC’s brief states: “No matter how they are compensated and for what medium they write, when students perform reporting functions, they are entitled to protection against the compelled production of their newsgathering materials and fishing expeditions into their motives.”

“The student journalists’ work sheds light on an essential government function, fulfilling a need not fully met by any other media outlet. The students’ ability to gain access to information through independent interviews of witnesses, and the protection of their source materials that are produced as a result of these interviews, are necessary to ensure they can inform the citizens of this state about the efficiency or failings of the criminal justice system. In short, this vital journalistic work is exactly the type of work for which the reporters’ privilege was designed,” the brief states.

The SPLC concludes: “Without the protections of the Act, stories that are important to the citizens of Illinois may never get investigated or published. Informants’ tips will dry up if there is no assurance of anonymity. The work of student journalists informs the community as a whole, and the failure to extend the Act’s protections to students would cause harm to the public interest.”

Attorney Erin Bolan Hines of Baker & Hostetler filed the brief, which was prepared with the assistance of SPLC volunteer attorney Robert Bertsche of Boston, a veteran First Amendment lawyer.