The Dented Shield

IT WAS AN odd sight, but there they sat: Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman in the front row and, breathing down his neck in the second, Minnesota Daily Editor Michele Ames. Odd because, on Monday night in the basement of the Capitol building, a special session of the joint judiciary committee was meeting to hash over the very sticky media "shield laws" that Freeman and Ames have been fighting over, via court orders and appeals, for the past few months.

Freeman, as most onlookers know by now, wants some unpublished photos that a Daily photographer snapped at a 1993 campus rally-cum-brawl; in them, he hopes, might be enough evidence to tilt the scales against a defendant now on trial for felony assault. Ames, backed by a pack of First Amendment lawyers and activists who showed up Monday night, says no.

What started as a small round of shuffle-and-deal between the Daily and the prosecution has turned into a high-stakes game whose outcome may radically alter the way both media and law enforcement in Minnesota go about their work. Ames and Freeman know it all too well, and both would like nothing better than for the other to quietly back down. And though no one who testified before the committee was allowed to talk about it, the Daily-County Attorney quarrel was loud in the chamber. It was, after all, the reason why everyone from esteemed media scholar Don Gilmor to WCCO anchor Don Shelby was present.

The slow erosion of press privileges in the state over the past few years--aided by a couple of key rulings--has been brought into sharp focus by this dispute, and media organizations are starting to get nervous about what are turning out to be some pretty large loopholes in the current statute.

"We would still be here tonight if the Daily case had never occurred," said one attorney, "because of what's going on around the state." The situation, he told the committee, is nothing short of a crisis--media organizations are being repeatedly subpoenaed in civil cases, in criminal cases, by defendants, by prosecutors, all wanting a look at unpublished material that might boost their chances in court. It's becoming fashionable, he said, to subpoena the media as a shortcut to other, perhaps more arduous, means of collecting information. And the courts are, to an alarming degree, endorsing the practice, since a strict reading of the statute means only material regarding confidential sources is protected--not, for instance, the Daily photos. Nor a reporter's scribbled notes from a political convention. Nor video outtakes of an interview with the mayor. Help us fend off these First Amendment attacks was the evening's refrain; judging from committee members' response--bleary stares, the occasional bromide about stopping crime by any means necessary--the media may find it tough going at the Legislature this session.

 
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