AAN Urges State’s Attorney to Reconsider Medill Subpoenas

Last month it was revealed that the Cook County state’s attorney subpoenaed emails, grades, and notes and recordings of witness interviews from students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism who were investigating a 1978 homicide case for the school’s Innocence Project. Today, AAN sent this letter to the state’s attorney.


November 9, 2009

Anita Alvarez, Esq.
State’s Attorney
Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office
500 Richard J. Daley Center
Chicago, IL 60602

Dear Ms. Alvarez:

The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies has grave concerns about your decision to force students at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism to turn over notes, emails, grading reports and other materials related to their investigation of Anthony McKinney, who the school’s internationally acclaimed Innocence Project says is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

AAN represents 129 alt-weekly news organizations covering every major metropolitan area in North America, including papers like the Chicago Reader, NewCity and Illinois Times. Our members are concerned whenever the values of a free press are threatened, and we believe the actions by your office do just that.

The Innocent Project, run by professor David Protess, has done great work over the years. It helped vindicate 11 people who were serving long prison sentences. In addition, the project’s work was one of the driving forces behind the decision of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan to suspend all executions in the state.

The students have spent three years investigating the McKinney case, and have concluded that the man is innocent of the 1978 murder of a security guard.

The students are clearly covered by the reporter’s privilege in the Illinois Compiled Statutes. Under that law, the privilege can only be overridden when the information sought is unavailable through alternative means and when its disclosure is essential to the public interest. It is difficult to understand why an independent investigation by your office couldn’t obtain the information uncovered by the students.

And it is equally difficult to discern why the students’ grades and grading criteria, evaluations of their performance, and the course syllabus are essential to your investigation, much less the public interest.

In his concurring opinion in Branzburg v. Hayes, Justice Lewis Powell decried investigations in which reporters are “called upon to give information bearing only a remote and tenuous relationship to the subject of the investigation, or … (whose) testimony implicates confidential source relationships without a legitimate need of law enforcement.”

Based on what we know, we can only conclude that your investigation treads on the illegitimate turf described by Justice Powell, and constitutes an attack on press freedom that threatens the integrity not just of Medill’s journalism program, but of the work of all reporters in the state of Illinois.

We urge you to reconsider your decision to issue these subpoenas.

Tim Redmond
Executive Editor, San Francisco Bay Guardian
AAN First Amendment Chair