Re: Innocence Project

Just a few quick comments to add in response to the letter below.

First, I did not mean to disparage the Medill Innocence Project (or Prof. David Protess, who runs it) by calling it “activist.” Theirs is a very good form of activism — while many participants are no doubt motivated by opposition to the death penalty in general, the focus is always on finding the truly wrongfully convicted. So long as the Innocence Project and groups like it stop pursuing cases when they find the convicted party to be guilty, they have my total support.

Second, the definition of “reporter” under Illinois law — not the question of whether students in this class use journalistic techniques, or may, at some point, publish write-ups of what they do — is what’s relevant in terms of the shield. The law defines reporter as:

any person regularly engaged in the business of collecting, writing or editing news for publication through a news medium on a full-time or part-time basis; and includes any person who was a reporter at the time the information sought was procured or obtained.

Do participants in the Innocence Project meet this definition? Again, I’m skeptical. The program’s main goal isn’t to publish stories, but to rectify injustices. As I pointed out in my original post, some other schools’ Innocence Projects aren’t even run out of journalism programs, but out of law or criminal-justice programs. If a person is investigating mainly for these reasons, but also plans to publish the results in a newspaper, does that count?

It’s a gray area, and as I said before, it illustrates the problem with shield laws generally: They give journalists rights that other people don’t have, thus forcing the government to decide who is and is not a journalist. If the law says that prosecutors can access information that’s relevant to the case, and a judge agrees that a certain piece of information is relevant, journalists should have to choose between handing over the information and going to jail, just like everyone else.

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