U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Student newspaper subpoenaed for documents and reporting materials as part of $100 million dispute

Incident Details

Date of Incident
May 17, 2019
Chicago, Illinois

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue
REUTERS/File/Jim Young

The independent student newspaper of the University of Chicago, The Chicago Maroon, has been subpoenaed by a private foundation for documents used in reporting.

— REUTERS/File/Jim Young
April 23, 2024 - Update

Foundation drops subpoena of Chicago student newspaper

A foundation locked in a legal dispute with the University of Chicago dropped its subpoena for documents from the university’s student newspaper, an attorney for the paper’s former editor told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in April 2024.

In 2017, The Chicago Maroon received a 66-page stack of the university’s internal administrative documents that had been found in a subway trash can. The documents revealed a deteriorating relationship between The Thomas L. Pearson and The Pearson Family Members Foundation and the University of Chicago over the university’s handling of a $100 million pledge by the foundation.

The foundation sued the university in February 2018 and in March, then editor of the paper Euirim Choi published an article about the situation, citing the documents The Maroon had received.

In May 2019, the Pearsons subpoenaed The Maroon for the documents. When the foundation was informed that only Choi still had access to them, it subpoenaed him as well, demanding information on his reporting process, how he had obtained the documents and from whom, if known.

Choi’s attorney Matt Topic objected to the subpoena, Choi confirmed to the Tracker at the time. The Student Press Law Center reported that The Maroon had secured its own legal counsel. The Tracker was unable to confirm the identity of that counsel or whether the paper had objected to the subpoena.

Topic told the Tracker via email in 2024 that in response to his objections on Choi’s behalf, the Pearsons withdrew their subpoenas of both Choi and the paper “within a few months of this starting.”

May 17, 2019

The Chicago Maroon, the University of Chicago’s student newspaper, was served a subpoena on May 17, 2019, in connection with a lawsuit between The Thomas L. Pearson and The Pearson Family Members Foundation and the university.

On March 5, 2018, The Maroon published an article written by then-editor Euirim Choi 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 was moving 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.

When the foundation discovered that only Choi, and not the student newspaper, has access to the documents, it filed a subpoena against him on May 22. Choi said the foundation’s subpoena against The Maroon has been left active, however, to satisfy that the foundation is using all avenues of discovery.

As is the case with Choi, some First Amendment scholars are concerned that Illinois’s shield law may not be applicable to The Maroon as it is a student newspaper.

The statute defines a news medium in part as, “any newspaper or other periodical issued at regular intervals whether in print or electronic format and having a general circulation.” The Maroon appears to meet this definition.

Choi told the Tracker that the current editors at The Maroon informed the Pearson Foundation that they cannot provide the requested documents because they are no longer in possession of any copies. The University of Chicago told WBEZ News in a statement that it has reached out to staff at The Maroon to help find capable legal counsel and that they recognize the editorial independence of the paper and its staff.

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