The Medill Innocence Project is comprised of journalism students at Northwestern University and investigates the work of prosecutors and police in oldcases; since its inception, it has helped to overturn 11 convictions. Most recently, it has raised questions surrounding the verdict in a 31-year-old case in which a man was convicted of murdering a security guard; its investigations were submitted to Northwestern’s Center for Wrongful Convictions. Illinois state prosecutors responded to the project’s findings with their own investigation – not into the murder, but into the students themselves.

This May, prosecutors subpoenaed the students’ e-mail correspondences, grades, grading criteria, course syllabuses and expense reports, claiming that they need all of the evidence surrounding the students’ three-year investigation into the case in order to re-examine it. This is an infringement on the students’ rights as journalists, a waste of time for the court and a distraction from the real matter at hand – the alleged innocence of a convicted man.

Now, the university is fighting these subpoenas by saying that they violate rights granted by the state that protect the privacy of journalists’ sources and notes as well as federal privacy rights.

We agree with Northwestern’s response to the prosecution’s subpoenas. The students – as members of a journalism program at Northwestern – ought to be considered journalists within the confines of the case; the state law that protects journalists in court should apply. Their personal e-mail correspondences are also protected under federal law and likely have little bearing on the case at hand. In essence, the prosecution seems to be using these subpoenas to divert attention from the case.

The prosecution’s rationale for issuing the subpoenas is questionable. Prosecutors claim that students may have coerced witnesses into recanting their testimony – and therefore providing the spur for the re-investigation – in order to receive better grades in the course. The tactics prosecutors imply students could have used are the sort employed by police officers to convince witnesses to lie to avoid imprisonment or unflattering records. Even if a student believed it would have improved his or her grade if the witnesses changed their statements, it seems there is little a journalism student could do to force a witness to change his or her story.

The prosecutors’ bullying could have a dire effect on the project, not to mention other journalistic initiatives like it. It’s already costing Northwestern money in legal fees and may deter students from participating in this project in the future. While we can understand the prosecution’s interest in obtaining the students’ notes – to provide a clearer understanding of the evidence and the interviews students conducted with witnesses – they should be protected under the journalistic standards set by state law.

We commend the project’s director, David Protess, a journalism professor and dean of the Medill School of Journalism, for refusing to submit class grades to the prosecution and for standing behind his students, who could be held in contempt of court for not handing over their e-mail correspondence.

We question the prosecutors’ motivations in subpoenaing these students’ journalistic efforts. If they do persist in subpoenaing the project in order to salvage the “guilty” verdict in this case, it will be a blow to the rights of student journalists. Rather than target the Medill Innocence Project itself, prosecutors ought to focus on the content of the case at hand.

**Correction:** The editorial titled “On the Record for Journalism” (THE HOYA, Oct. 27, 2009, A2) stated that David Protess is the dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. John Lavine is the dean.

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