Last month a Cook County Circuit Court judge made a ruling that was good for journalism. Citing the Illinois Reporter's Privilege Act, Judge Diane Cannon quashed subpoenas that requested working materials from the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and the Loyola University student newspaper, the Loyola Phoenix. All three papers had covered the beating of a gay man last January, the Phoenix because one of the three suspects was a Loyola student at the time. The attorney for another suspect subpoenaed the materials in hopes of finding evidence that the victim told inconsistent stories and perhaps lied under oath.
The Student Press Law Center, based in Arlington, Virginia, said in a commentary on Cannon's action that this was possibly the first time an Illinois judge had "used the state’s shield law to protect student journalists."
The July newsletter of the Headline Club also addresses Cannon's action. It says:
"The Chicago Headline Club board is elated the judge ruled this way in the Loyola Phoenix case. Now, if the judge will use that precedent to rule the same way in the Medill Project Innocence case! The Headline Club for two years has objected to subpoenas issued by the state's attorney's office for Northwestern journalism students' records and other files related to their investigation of a murder case, maintaining student journalists are covered by the shield law."
But what's at issue in the Innocence Project case isn't simply whether the shield law covers student journalists — though that is how Medill, the Headline Club, and other professional journalism organizations have wished to frame the matter. It's also whether the Project Innocence students were acting as journalists or partisan investigators.
The Innocence Project, founded by David Protess in 1999, is now run by Medill professor Alec Klein. A month ago the Innocence Project released the results of its first investigation under Klein, which called into question the 2007 murder conviction of Donald Watkins, now serving 56 years in prison. The results were posted on the Innocence Project website — the first time that had been done, Klein told me. He said, "My understanding is that in the past, the information students gathered was shared with the defense attorneys representing the prisoners whose cases they were looking into." That's why Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez maintains Protess and his students were partisan investigators, rather than as journalists. In 2009 she subpoenaed records in the investigation of convicted murderer Anthony McKinney; Northwestern University fought the subpoena on Protess's behalf but eventually accused him of misleading the university's lawyers and suspended him from teaching. Protess is no longer on the Medill faculty.
The question of whether Alvarez's subpoenas should stand remains unresolved. A full hearing on that question is scheduled for July 26, and the judge, again, is Diane Cannon. "I'm hoping her ruling in the Loyola case signals that she’ll cut loose the Medill students," says former Headline Club president Susan Stevens, who wrote the July newsletter.