McGuire on Media

Let’s not let Medill Innocence Project be another Hazelwood

I cannot remember anything about the day in 1988 that the Supreme Court issued its decision on Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. I cannot remember if my newspaper made a very big deal out of it, but the decision embarrasses the heck out me 20 years later.

The Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood that high school principals have power to control student newspaper content.  I have heard and seen references that many newspaper editorials endorsed the decision. A quick Google search yields little, but I do know that as I’ve talked to high school journalists, teachers and advocates over the years, I have found the the failure of the national press to rise up in support of high school journalism damned difficult to explain. It then became impossible to explain as high school journalism eroded. There are lots of reasons for that erosion, but Hazelwood is clearly one. Student press advocates like the tireless Mark Goodman, the former director of the Student Press Law Center, have criticized Hazelwood for years. Neither the press nor the courts have really listened.

The bugles are blowing again. To attempt to redeem itself for its ignorance and sloth on Hazelwood, the mainstream press needs to rally to protect and defend the Medill Innocence Project.

Cook County prosecutors are attempting to investigate the Medill Innocence Project. Northwestern students working on the project say they have uncovered evidence that exonerates a man named Anthony McKinney, who has spent 31 years in prison for murder. The Innocence Project has exonerated people before and this time the prosecutors have decided to shoot the messenger by subpoenaing the “grades and grading criteria, evaluations of student performance, expenses incurred during the inquiry, the syllabus, e-mails, unpublished student memos, and interviews not conducted on the record, or where witnesses weren’t willing to be recorded,” according to a story from the Chicago Tribune.

The scope of that request is obviously broad, but I was most intrigued by this sentence: “Among the issues the prosecutors need to understand better, a spokeswoman said, is whether students believed they would receive better grades if witnesses they interviewed provided evidence to exonerate Mr. McKinney. “

I have a 20-year-old law degree. I have never practiced law a day in my life. With that meager background, I have always believed that law enforcement needed a reason to believe something.  That quote does not indicate the prosecutors have any evidence that The Innocence Project students believed they would get better grades. One must wonder if the prosecutors were hanging around Starbucks spit balling ideas when they came up with this dandy idea. That’s not how the law works.  You have to have cause to believe something.

One does not have to be paranoid or an adept sleuth to think the prosecutors are intimidating an organization that has been a pain for them in the past. At the center of this argument is the question of whether these students are journalists or “investigators.” The New York Times  said, ” In their quest, prosecutors have raised a central question about the role of the students — suggesting that they should be viewed as an “investigative agency,” not journalists, whose unpublished materials could, under certain circumstances, be protected under a state statute.” How about we just call them investigative journalists and get the heck out of Dodge?

This case is getting attention, I don’t deny that. The Twittersphere seems active and angry. This conservative Northwestern alum is wonderfully eloquent on the need to protect the Medill Innocence program. And, both the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune have done significant pieces. I don’t think it’s enough.

The major voices and organizations in the industry need to speak out, write briefs and raise holy hell about this witch hunt by Cook County prosecutors. Every advocate for good journalism needs to see this case really matters. Each university clinic program in America from Cronkite News Service, to  Cronkite’s four day-a-week Newswatch to the Innocence Project to scores of others need the protection from harassment that is afforded journalists. Increasingly, the industry and scholars are recognizing the crucial role these university efforts might play in the future of journalism. These operations are led by dedicated, talented professionals and those clinic programs usually attract the very best students.

Their great work IS journalism, no argument needed. The bullies who want to hamstring great student journalism need to be stopped.  God bless John Lavine, the Medill Dean, for standing strong against the misguided prosecutors, but Lavine and the Medill Innocence Project need editorial support and the voices of the big journalism guns to close down this brazen attempt at usurping a free press. If I can figure out the best place to donate a couple of bucks, I’m going to do that, too.

Hazelwood is a blot on the proud journalistic record of fighting for press freedoms.  Let’s not let the Northwestern Innocence project case become another.

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2 Comments

  1. Betty Medsger
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    You are so right. This unprecedented and dangerous threat must be fought.

  2. Paul Neely
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    Let’s put Hazelwood in context. The basis of the court’s ruling was that the school “owned” the newspaper. The principal was, in essence, the publisher. Should we really be surprised that major media companies did not rush forward with amicus briefs saying that the owners did not have an absolute right to control content? Would a Gannett CEO, for instance, claim by extension that editors of the company’s newspapers had an autonomy to print whatever they wanted, regardless of what their corporate superiors wished, and that that lesson extended down to the high school level?
    Of course not.
    That is an entirely different question from whether the principal acted wisely, of course. But courts do not settle question of wisdom; they settle question of law.
    I think the Medill case is a good deal more complicated, but not so much more so as to be an easy call, legally speaking. Surely, the DA’s office does not “own” the Medill project.
    I also absolutely agree that the prosecutors are “misguided,” to use Tim’s word, but the legal case is a mixed bag. Tim calls for the support of “big journalism guns,” but this is not just a power struggle. It’s a legal struggle.
    In fact, it has extended implications for some of the remedies being proposed for journalism today, especially those involving government subsidies, even those done through the tax code.
    Yes, because of my past positions and biases, I would talk about “bullies” too. That takes my stand on the emotions of the thing. That doesn’t mean, however, that the law is not on the other side.

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