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Judge Orders Medill Students to Turn Over Emails

By Chuck Sudo in News on Sep 7, 2011 10:00PM

Northwestern University has been ordered by a Cook County Circuit Court judge to turn over close to 500 emails between journalism students and former Medill Innocence Project head David Protess.

The correspondence is related to a case the students were asked to research by NU law school's Center for Wrongful Convictions a 30-year-old murder in Harvey in which Anthony McKinney may have been wrongfully convicted.

The case, which dragged on for nearly two years, centered on whether the students were protected under Illinois' Shield Law which maintains the privacy of a journalist's unpublished work. NU argued the correspondence was protected. Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez's office argued that advocacy journalism of the sort conducted by the students was not protected.

Judge Diane Cannon said the students were acting as journalists in a criminal procedure and therefore not covered by the shield law.

“In this case, the Medill students worked at the direction of Anthony McKinney’s attorneys, conducting interviews, gathering evidence,” Cannon said. “While a book may be written or an article published…the information is subject to the rules of discovery.”

NU had already turned over numerous documents related to the McKinney case to Alvarez's office student memos, emails and other class materials shared with attorneys for the Center on Wrongful Convictions, in response to a subpoena. The McKinney case led to a rift between the university and Protess after ethics allegations levied at Protess led to a university investigation.

Protess was pulled from teaching classes last spring, took a leave of absence from the Northwestern to form an Innocence Project independent from university oversight,
and finally left the university in June. Northwestern accused Protess of lying to them and doctoring records related to the McKinney case. Chicago magazine has an in-depth profile on the NU-Protess split that makes for timely reading with today's ruling.