Northwestern journalism students ordered to turn over emails

Journalism students from Northwestern’s Medill College of Journalism were ordered last week to turn over emails by a Cook County judge.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the Medill students, along with journalism professor David Protess, were chronicling their efforts to free Anthony McKinney—a prisoner serving a life sentence—who was accused of murdering a security guard in 1978.

These efforts are part of the Medill Innocence Project. According to their website, “Our goal is to expose wrongdoing in the criminal justice system.”

According to the Daily Northwestern, the ruling meant that students were not protected under Illinois shield laws.

Legal matters started in 2009 with a subpoena stating that the emails sent between students and the Center on Wrongful Convictions—based out of the Northwestern law school—be turned over.

Students initially turned over memos, some of the emails and class materials, but not internal emails.

The judge has given a “10-day stay” on the ruling, so an appeal can be considered, according to the Tribune.

A link to the Illinois Shield Law can be found here, .

What role are journalists supposed to have in relation to legal matters? Are we supposed to get involved in trying to overturn murder rulings, or any ruling? Was the judge correct in her ruling?

For more information on the Medill Innocence Project’s findings go here:


2 Comments on “Northwestern journalism students ordered to turn over emails”

  1. Keith Llado says:

    After reading the two reports–yours and the report filed by The Chicago Tribune–and the shield laws for Illinois, I cannot understand why the Northwestern students were not covered under the shield laws, and why the judge has subpoenaed the information regarding McKinney’s appeal.

    I would tend to agree with Protess: that the students were not given adequate protection under the shield laws simply because they were not affiliated with a newspaper or some other publication. However, to my understanding of the state law’s definition of a “reporter,” the students would more than likely fall under this definition.

    As far as the school’s involvement with the appeal of McKinney’s conviction, I believe that it does find itself in a bit of a tight spot, ethically: if the students and the school want to be protected and treated as journalists, then they should contemplate their roll in this newsworthy story, as they are teetering dangerously between journalist and activist. Therefore, I believe a decision must be made: either peruse this issue as an activist and advocate for this man’s rights, or follow these proceedings as a journalist and avoid the ethical dilemma of becoming part of the story itself. Though they must keep well in mind that as activists advocating for a cause, they are not protected under any shield laws.

  2. I don’t think the students should have to turn in their emails. I am not familiar with the Illinois shield laws; however, I believe that these kids are working as journalists, and under certain circumstances, they should have the right to keep their conversations private.

    However, I think this is more of a matter of ethics on the part of students, and I believe they should offer up their emails as a contribution. Unless their work is of such importance that it is more pertinent than the trial, which I doubt to be the case.

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