Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Ruling on Northwestern Students and the Protess Case

A judge ruled today that Northwestern University must turn over 500 emails between David Protess and his students because "the Medill students worked at the direction of Anthony McKinney’s attorneys, conducting interviews, gathering evidence.” The ruling is stayed for 10 days until Northwestern can decide to appeal it.

I'll admit that I'm no expert at this issue. I think that if anything, the privilege that applies to investigators working for the defense should be much, much stronger than any journalistic privilege. Exactly why should the prosecution be able to subpoena the defense for evidence? I'm baffled by the whole situation. Perhaps it's because the guilt of a separate individual is now in question, but that has nothing to do with the McKinney defense, an apparently innocent man who remains in prison while prosecutors delay and delay everything.

On Monday, I watched the remarkable new documentary Crime After Crime, which shows how Los Angeles prosecutors stonewalled the efforts to release a woman from prison who should never have received a life sentence. The McKinney case doesn't seem much different, with State's Attorney Anita Alvarez leading a successful crusade against David Protess and his students to avoid dealing with the issue of innocence and prosecutorial misconduct.

Of course, the emails are quite likely to reveal absolutely nothing of any legal significance once they come out (otherwise, I'm sure Northwestern officials would have leaked any negative information as part of their crusade against Protess). But they set a terrible legal precedent against Innocence Project classes. This whole sham of a proceeding is meant to intimidate and smear, not gain justice for anyone.

Chicago Magazine just released an extensive story about what happened to Protess at Northwestern. This article is a good examination of the appalling actions by the Northwestern administration against David Protess. I am particularly amazed by the admission that the administration thinks it can ban faculty from attending faculty meetings if they are on leave for the semester: “Professor Protess was on leave spring quarter. Faculty members on leave do not attend faculty meetings.” It's a small point, but it reflects both the repressive tendencies of Northwestern administrators and their outright hypocrisy, since I am sure many faculty who have been on leave can come forward to reveal that they have attended faculty meetings without opposition.

As an advocacy journalist, I am appalled and annoyed by the article's discussion about whether Protess and his students engaged in advocacy for innocent prisoners, as if this were a crime deserving the academic death penalty. Objectivity is the worst thing that's happened to journalism in recent decades (yes, even worse than corporate ownership) and it's the main source of both bad writing and false reporting in the media. Advocacy journalism is a glorious tradition, and I regard it as both unethical and unprofessional for any journalism school to ban students from learning advocacy reporting. I don't object to journalism schools teaching objectivity despite its all-around evil influence, and I think individual professors should be free to push objectivity even though I hate it. But the notion that advocacy journalism should be banished from journalism schools is appalling and should be regarded as both an attack on academic freedom and an attack on great journalism.

In one area, this article falls short. It notes, “The American Association of University Professors also demanded to know Lavine’s reasoning.” In reality, the AAUP letters to Northwestern (available on my blog at demanded to know why the administration was violating Northwestern's own rules for due process before removing a faculty member from teaching responsibilities. It wasn't just the lack of any good reason for removing Protess from his class (and now the university completely) that upset the AAUP, it was the lack of any due process that the University's own rules demanded.

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