As I opened my email Monday evening, I found one sent from my older brother. We sometimes send each other interesting articles, videos or other types of news to one another. This one caught my attention the most because it was an article posted by the National Public Radio (NPR). The headline was “Judge Orders Journalism School To Turn Over Emails.” Immediately, I think of some irrelevant scandal that has happened within a small college in the middle of nowhere America, but this story was something completely different.
Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., is a well-known university, and its Medill School of Journalism ranks high in the nation. The Medill Innocence Project helps exonerate wrongly convicted felons of crimes that sent them to prison. David Protess, an ex-professor at Northwestern and his investigative journalism students began digging into a case in 2003. It involved prisoner Anthony McKinney, who was charged and convicted of killing a south suburban security guard. McKinney was sentenced to life in prison in 1978 at the age of 18.
The students began researching the case after speculation arose that the court jailed an innocent person. They were able to track down witnesses that were recorded saying they were at the scene of the crime but McKinney was not. It took more than seven years untill Protess was able to take all of the student’s work to Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions in the law school. In 2008, there was a petition for a new trial for McKinney and a local Chicago newspaper wrote a story on the student’s work. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez began questioning how the students got all of the information. She followed this up a year later with a subpoena of all of the student’s records on the case, which included emails, interview tapes and interview transcriptions.
In Illinois, there is a reporter’s privilege law. This is a shield law, which protects a journalist from handing over any materials they have used in researching and writing an article. Alvarez claimed Protess’s students were not journalists because none of their work was published until after it was turned over to the defense attorney.
A judge in Illinois agreed with this notion and said the students were not acting as journalists but as investigators for the defense team. This means they are subject to turning over more than 500 email correspondents.
With such a decision handed down on this case, many are beginning to wonder what the chilling effect this will have on other journalism students. Professor Beth Konrad from Loyola University said, “People will walk away — students, journalism programs, prosecutors and innocence projects around the country — they’ll walk away saying, ‘Wow, watch out what you do here, because if you’re part of this, you can be subpoenaed for your notes, for your grades, for your emails, for all of your materials, your tapes, anything that you have … because that’s what happened at Medill.”
I could not agree more. States that have shield laws sometimes have problems defining if a person is a journalist or if they are not. Has it really ever been defined to the general?
This is a key question, especially since anyone can technically be a journalist with all these social media sites and a recent blogging boom.
But the biggest question is, how much of a chilling effect will this have on other journalism students?
For any current journalism students at Miami University, this could cause problems in publishing stories with anonymous sources and other information. The worst part is that you either turn in all your information or have the chance of being in contempt of court.
One of the most anticipated parts of this decision is how Northwestern will react. In a statement they said they respected the decision but the school has until Sept. 21 to appeal the judge’s ruling. The Society of Professional Journalists and other individuals have spoken out about the ruling and are hoping the school appeals it.
If this ruling stands, shield laws could become transparent and have no real meaning in the court of law. As a future journalist, I do not want to be judged on when I theoretically “became” a journalist and judges need to carefully examine the definition of a journalist before they go around a shield law. Or else nothing will ever be protected, anonymous sources will never feel safe and breaking news could take its largest hit in history.