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Student journalist subpoenaed for documents and reporting materials as part of dispute between university, foundation

June 11, 2019

Student journalist Euirim Choi was served a subpoena on May 22, 2019, in connection with a lawsuit between The Thomas L. Pearson and The Pearson Family Members Foundation and the University of Chicago. Choi is the former editor of the university’s student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, and has been asked for documents and communications pertaining to an article he wrote as editor.

On March 5, 2018, The Maroon published Choi’s article on the unravelling of relations between the university and the foundation over the course of a year. The foundation and university had filed a lawsuit and countersuit, respectively, contesting a $100 million donation pledged by the foundation.

The article was based on documents included in a 66-page stack found in a subway trash can in northern Chicago and brought to the newspaper’s office in the summer of 2017, The Maroon reported. While The Maroon published a summary of some of the documents that August, it did not include documents connected to the Pearsons or the Institute they were funding.

“The Maroon decided not to publish or mention the Pearson Institute documents, which were marked ‘privileged and confidential attorney-client communication,’ in order to avoid escalating a still-nascent dispute,” Choi wrote in his report the following March. But, as the lawsuit moved forward, the paper decided to publish the documents to provide context on the dispute.

Some handwritten notes were redacted from the documents shared with the piece, Choi wrote, in order to obscure the identity of the source. Even though the newspaper was unaware of the original owner’s identity, they did not know whether the documents had been intentionally leaked.

The foundation filed a subpoena against The Maroon on May 17, asking not only for the unredacted document, but “all other documents and communications related thereto or obtained in connection therewith, including without limitation the ‘66 pages of internal university documents’ referenced” in Choi’s article.

Choi told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the current editors at The Maroon reached out to him once they received the subpoena, as he was the only remaining person with access to the documents. Though they had made six copies, Choi said, the original documents were lost and all but his digital copy were deliberately destroyed.

When the foundation was informed that it would have to pursue the documents through Choi, it issued him a subpoena on May 22. In addition to the unredacted documents, the subpoena requested information on Choi’s reporting process, including any documents or evidence on how The Maroon obtained the documents and the identity of the author, if known. The deadline for response was June 3.

Peter Scheer, board president of the First Amendment Coalition, told CNN Business that the fact Choi is a student journalist “could complicate matters.”

“It could be up for debate whether a student journalist is granted the same protections as a journalist reporting as their full-time job,” Scheer said.

Matt Topic, a government transparency and media lawyer who is representing Choi pro-bono, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he is confident that the qualified privilege granted by Illinois’ Shield Law applies to Choi.

The statute defines a 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.”

Choi told the Tracker that he and Topic had filed a response to the subpoena and are continuing to fight it.

— The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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