A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about some of the challenges of teaching college journalism in this day and age, most notably the current bad job market and the long-term uncertainty of the industry. One thing I have not had to contend with, fortunately, is prosecutors’ subpoenaing my students’ grades.
That is exactly the situation faced by the famous Innocence Project at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, according to the New York Times. Over the years, investigations by students in the project, under the direction of Prof. David Protess, have led to the release of eleven inmates. The project is currently looking into the case of a man convicted of murder thirty-one years ago, and, in response, Cook County prosecutors have demanded the “grades, grading criteria, class syllabus, expense reports and e-mail messages.” A spokesperson for the prosecutor said this was needed in order to see (in the Times’ paraphrase) “whether students believed they would receive better grades if witnesses they interviewed provided evidence to exonerate” the inmate.
Give me a break! Journalists have always been rewarded (implicitly or explicitly) for breaking big stories, and “Convicted Man Innocent!” is certainly a bigger story than “Convicted Man Guilty!” But that’s just the nature of the beast, and to my knowledge authorities have never interfered in such a way with journalists investigating the workings of the criminal justice system.
The prosecutors are engaging in harassment, pure and simple, apparently with the hope of producing the famous “chilling effect.” The fact that they’re bullying students makes this tactic all the more offensive. It almost makes me want to see if I can donate my students to Innocence Project’s efforts.