Mainstream media outlets on Monday came to the defense of a group of Medill journalism students in a subpoena battle with the Cook County State's Attorney.
An attorney representing The New York Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune and more than a dozen other news organizations filed a brief in Cook County Court opposing a subpoena that would force the students to turn over their notes and internal correspondence.
Northwestern Journalism Professor David Protess, the school and its attorneys say unpublished work should be protected by the same shield laws that protect professional journalists from revealing their sources.
The Society of Professional Journalists agrees.
"If these subpoenas are granted to these students, particularly in this case, it represents a number of different areas of, really, a fishing expedition," said Beth Conrad with the Chicago Headline Club.
The subpoenas from Anita Alvarez's office are related to the Medill Innocence Project and its attempts to exonerate Anthony McKinney in a three-decades-old murder case. So far, the work of Protess and his students has freed 11 wrongly convicted men.
Alvarez's office contends student journalists paid a witness for a statement during their investigation of the McKinney case and wants to look into the methods used.
In particular, they are asking the students for their class grades, the class syllabus and records of expenses and reimbursements.
Conrad called the request an "intrusion of freedom of information."
"One of the lessons that my students and I have learned from all of this is to be very careful about what you say in electronic communications; e-mail and otherwise, because you never know when prosecutors are going to be interested in taking a look at it," Protess said.
Northwestern University wants the subpoenas thrown out. A Cook County Circuit Court Judge could rule on that request as soon as next month.