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The Schuette Subpoenas

Mar 11, 2015

I don’t know if you know this, but journalists don’t have any more right to seek out information and publish it than the guy selling Slurpees in the Seven-Eleven.

And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The right to know and to express ourselves is guaranteed to all Americans by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

We don’t want government saying who can be a journalist because that would imply that it could say who can’t be, and that would be the end of freedom of speech.

But since we have no special rights, that means we can’t ignore subpoenas or refuse to testify, and according to the ethics of our profession, that means we sometimes may have to risk going to jail. If we promise to keep a source anonymous, we are bound by that.

That means, when a judge says reveal an identity or go to prison, we are obligated to go to prison.  And many journalists have.

Government usually threatens this only in cases that they perceive as having extreme national security implications.

A New York Times reporter named Judith Miller went to jail during President George W. Bush’s time for refusing to say who in the administration leaked her information blowing the cover of a CIA agent.

When it was all over, the government ended up looking pretty bad, as it usually does when it attempts to intimidate the press, but history has a way of repeating itself, with tragedy turning into farce.

And Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette made a fool of himself two days ago, filing subpoenas against Michigan Radio and the Huffington Post, demanding the notes a reporter took after she interviewed inmates inside two state prisons.

Schuette looked even stupider a few hours later when he then suddenly withdrew the subpoenas, after wasting taxpayer money sending someone following the Huffington reporter, Dana Liebelson, across the state.

He had a spokesman put out a statement saying in part,

“after further review Attorney General Schuette has determined that information necessary to defending the State of Michigan can be obtained in other ways and will direct department attorneys to withdraw the subpoenas.”

By the way, while these stations air my commentaries, I am not an employee of Michigan Radio, nor have I talked to its executives about these events.

But it is clear that there are only two possible interpretations for Schuette’s behavior. One is that he is incompetent.

The other, that he is attempting to create what is called a “chilling effect,” intimidating journalists into not doing their jobs.

The stories that upset him, by the way, have to do with sexual abuse in prisons.

You might think the attorney general would be more interested in investigating what it actually happening in these prisons. Some, however, think his main concern is polishing his right-wing credentials for the Republican race for governor next time.

Yesterday, the Toledo Blade had an editorial about another of Schuette’s antics, his decision to oppose the ballot proposal to repair the roads.

The newspaper said:

Mr. Schuette should concentrate on being a full-time attorney general. Michigan doesn’t seem to have run out of crime.

That sounds like rather good advice. But I wouldn’t bet that he’ll take it.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.