Medill Case: Are Student Journalists Protected?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Illinois Department of Corrections

Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism students say they have evidence that Anthony McKinney was falsely convicted of murder

Northwestern University is dealing with a class project that may have become too successful. From 2003 to 2006, students at the university's Medill School of Journalism investigated the evidence surrounding the murder conviction of Anthony McKinney, who was sentenced to life in prison for the 1978 murder of a security guard outside of Chicago. They eventually posted their findings online, including key witnesses recanting their statements during the trial, allegations of police intimidation and two potential suspects named by a man who says he was present during the murder. In response to the student investigation, the state attorney's office is revisiting the McKinney case.

But producing a persuasive argument for reopening the case is not the only result of the Medill project. The office of Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez has subpoenaed a broad range of materials from Northwestern, from off-the-record interview notes and student memos to class grades and syllabi for the school's Investigative Journalism class, which worked on the project.

John Lavine, dean of the Medill School of Journalism, says the students should be considered reporters and therefore be protected by a 1982 Illinois shield law that protects reporters from having to divulge information to officials, absent a compelling public interest. He says the school will vehemently contest the prosecutor's request in court and will only turn over on-the-record documents and statements — not background information or any private grades or grading criteria. "It's simply beyond belief that [prosecutors] who are committed to courts being open and understood by the public would want to stop anyone from covering them," Lavine tells TIME.

The state attorney's office did not respond to TIME's request for a statement. Alvarez was quoted by the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 20 as calling the students "investigators" instead of reporters. And Alvarez's chief of staff, Dan Kirk, is quoted as saying the purpose of the subpoena is to ensure that students did not approach the case with a bias and that grades in the class weren't tied to the results of the investigation. Kirk said this could undermine the information's legitimacy in the event of a retrial. Lavine calls the notion "insulting." "The prosecutor's job is not to cast stones against the work the students did," Lavine says. "It's their job to go see the same witnesses, using the students' information, and verify it themselves."

Attorney Richard O'Brien, who is representing Northwestern in the case, says any idea that the school's student journalists aren't entitled to the same protections as working reporters is flawed. "It's not as traditional a platform as the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune, but I don't think anyone pretends that online journalism isn't journalism these days," O'Brien says. A judge is scheduled to hear arguments on the subpoena on Nov. 10.

Dr. Erik Ugland, a media lawyer and associate professor at Marquette University's Diederich College of Communication, says the judge will have to decide whether the students are journalists and whether their website could be considered news media. Ugland says Illinois courts have accepted professional journals and government watchdog groups as reporters, suggesting they may take a similarly expansive look at student journalists.

As for whether the class's website could be considered a news outlet, Ugland says that while it isn't necessarily a "slam dunk," the students published their conclusions and much of their evidence on a publicly accessible website. "Certainly in spirit, the work that they're doing is the kind that the legislature no doubt had in mind when they extended these protections to journalists," he says. Additionally, the project is part of the Medill Innocence Project, which has had an impressive record since it started in 1999; student reporters have helped exonerate 11 convicts, including five inmates on death row.

Ugland says the judge will have to weigh privacy issues when deciding whether to release student grades. Such information is usually privileged under the 1974 federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, although there is a subpoena exemption.

Professor T. Barton Carter, chairman of Boston University's Department of Mass Communication, says ultimately the issue will come down to the judge's discretion. While Carter says he feels the student work qualifies under the spirit of the law, the judge may not decide to apply the Illinois shield law at all. General legal protections already exist to quash subpoenas if they're beyond the proper scope of an investigation, something Carter believes may apply in this case. "This looks like one of the great fishing expeditions of all time," Carter tells TIME.