Chicago Journalist Jamie Kalven’s Subpoena Battle Illustrates the Danger of Indirect Attacks on Press Freedom

Posted on February 13, 2018

In The Intercept, Chicago journalist Jamie Kalven reflects on his recent court battle to protect a source of his reporting, and what it illustrates about the state of press freedoms in the United States. Last year, Kalven, whose reporting helped reveal the flagrant misconduct by the Chicago Police Department which resulted in the death of Laquan McDonald, was served a subpoena by accused officer Jason Van Dyke’s lawyer to compel Kalven to disclose his story’s source. However, in December the judge ruled that there were insufficient grounds on which to serve the subpoena and dismissed it, sparing Kalven the likely prospect of going to jail, in contempt of the subpoena, to protect his source.

While the judge’s appreciation for the integrity of the journalistic process allowed Kalven to avoid serious legal peril, he now notes that the mere attempt of a subpoena challenge targeting his reporting demonstrates not only a growing hostility of government figures toward the press, but the unsettling and subtle new means employed toward those ends. In particular, Kalven points out that while pro bono lawyers and a coalition of press freedom organizations sprang to his defense, lesser-known journalists and smaller media outlets may well have submitted to such a subpoena. This raises the sinister possibility that the First Amendment does not effectively protect journalists against costly legal challenges designed to pressure media into exercising prior restraint.

What catalyzed such staunch support for him, Kalven maintains, is not so much the legal precedent of freedom of the press, but the civic and community tradition of freedom of the press. He concludes by noting that the only way to preserve the adversarial, truth-seeking journalism which is so vital to democracy is to carry on this same tradition, coming to its defense wherever it comes under attack.  Of course such civil society mobilization includes the work of such organizations as CCDBR.

The threat Kalven identifies is manifesting in various forms in cases across the country.  One example: in the ongoing felony rioting prosecution against participants in the Disrupt J20 protest, one independent journalist remains among the accused, facing potentially decades in prison. Civil liberties defenders and engaged citizens who rely on aggressive journalism would do well to take Kalven’s experience, and the warnings which it suggests, to heart. 

You can read Jamie Kalven’s full story here.

Jonathan Terrasi has been a Research Assistant with the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights since January 2017. His interests include computer security, encryption, history, and philosophy. In his writing, he regularly covers topics on current affairs and political developments, as well as technical analyses and guides on security issues, published on his blog, Cymatic Scanning, and Linux Insider.