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