An Illinois judge ruled earlier this week that while the state's shield law covers student journalists, more than 500 email messages between a Northwestern University professor and his students investigating a 33-year-old murder case must still be turned over to state prosecutors.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Cook County Judge Diane Cannon said the students, who belonged to the Medill Innocence Project, acted as "investigators in a criminal proceeding" by working with defense attorneys for Anthony McKinney, who was convicted of shooting a security guard with a shotgun in 1978.
The Medill Innocence Project, which is comprised of undergraduate students at the Medill journalism school, investigates cases with the goal of exposing wrongdoing in the criminal justice system, according to their website. McKinney is seeking a new trial after students claim to have turned up new information including recanted testimony and new alibi witnesses.
Because Cannon ruled from the bench Wednesday, a written order further explaining the rationale for her decision was not available.
Alan Cubbage, Northwestern's vice president for university relations, said the university is "encouraged" by the judge's ruling that students are generally covered by Illinois Reporter's Privilege Statute.
"That's the principle we were arguing all along," Cubbage said in a phone interview.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said due to the unusual nature of the Medill Innocence Project, the decision is not likely to negatively affect student journalists in the future.
"The structure of this program is so unique, it's unlikely that very many journalists would find themselves in this situation," LoMonte said. "If the issue was collaborating with a defense team, that's not an issue in the vast majority of cases. Our concern has always been that the court not decide students can't be journalists."
David Protess, the former Medill professor who oversaw the project, has maintained that his students were investigating the case two years before McKinney had a lawyer.
Cannon gave the university until Sept. 21 to comply with her order, allowing officials time to decide whether to appeal.
"Our attorneys will be reviewing it and will make a decision within the next 10 days," Cubbage said.