Editor’s note: CNN’s Jamie Ehrlich is a former staff member of the Chicago Maroon.
When a student journalist at the University of Chicago was handed a stack of documents allegedly found in a trash can, he had no idea it would lead to a subpoena that comes with $100 million on the line.
The Pearson Family Members Foundation, which is led by Thomas L. Pearson and his brother Timothy R. Pearson, sent senior student and former editor-in-chief of The Chicago Maroon, Euirim Choi, a subpoena on Wednesday to turn over the documents as part of a lawsuit against the University of Chicago to return a $100 million donation that the family pledged to the school.
Choi told CNN Business in an interview this week that he plans to fight the subpoena in court. He said he is worried the emails and source documents from his reporting could put his source in legal jeopardy. “I’m a bit scared,” he said, but he has no regrets about what he did.
“It was the right decision to move forward and publish the remaining documents along with a story,” Choi told CNN Business. “It was definitely newsworthy that the university was potentially on the verge of losing 100 million dollars.”
The Pearsons’ lawsuit drew national headlines – reports in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News and The Chicago Tribune detailed the darker side of university philanthropy that the lawsuit exposed.
The Pearson family, which acquired much of its wealth through fossil fuel industries, made a pledge of $100 million to the University of Chicago in 2015 to build the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts. But after a series of setbacks and disagreements between the two parties, the Pearson Family Foundation sued the University of Chicago in February of 2018 for $22.9 million – the amount that had been donated so far – writing that they no longer believe the university would be “an appropriate or capable steward of the Pearson Family legacy.”
About eight months earlier, in August 2017, The Maroon published a story that summarized some of the internal documents they had obtained, including a school budget and the announcement of a new dormitory. It wasn’t until after the Pearson family sued the university, that The Maroon published a report about the lawsuit, the Pearsons’ complaint and a three page timeline of events related to the dispute. Choi explained that the paper knew about the disagreement between the parties because they were referenced in the “66 pages of internal University documents”
“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 March 5, 2018 report. “With litigation now moving forward, The Maroon deemed the documents newly newsworthy as they, along with the Pearson Family Foundation’s complaint, outline the events that led to the lawsuit.”
The Pearsons’ lawyers did not respond to CNN Business’ repeated requests for comment.
The University of Chicago told CNN Business in a statement on Friday that it recognizes the editorial independence of The Maroon and that “the University is reaching out to current and former Maroon staff to offer support in identifying capable legal counsel.”
The documents told the story of a protracted fight between the University of Chicago and the Pearson Family Foundation. The school argued in its counterclaim that the grant agreement between the two parties ensures “the Foundation and the Pearsons would have no role or authority with respect to academic or professional appointments” or other academic matters. The counterclaim says that the Pearsons “sought a level of involvement and authority in the Institute’s operations, including academic matters, in disregard of the Agreement’s limits on its role.”
The university also claims that the Pearson’s failed to pay a $13 million installment to the grant, which constitutes a breach of the grant agreement between the two parties.
In a statement to The Maroon that was published in Choi’s report, the school said the Pearsons’ allegations were baseless.
Among the Pearsons’ complaints were a “failure to hire qualified faculty,” citing two chaired professorships that were filled by “two junior non-tenured professors.” The suit also alleged “fraudulent concealment” and breach of contract.
The documents showed that the university believed it had the option to terminate the grant agreement with the Pearsons, which included a “strategy for suggestion of wind down” of the institute as it stood during the time of the lawsuit.
How The Maroon obtained the documents
The Maroon reported the documents were discovered by a local resident in a trash can at a subway station in northern Chicago. That person turned them over to the newspaper once he “recognized the recentness, and importance, of at least some of the papers,” he told The Maroon.
The Maroon then “edited out handwriting on some of the documents as a courtesy to the person who originally possessed the documents,” but the paper does “not know the identity of this individual and does not know if the documents were intentionally leaked.”
The 66 pages obtained by the newspaper did not just contain information about the Pearsons’ fight with the school. According to The Maroon, the documents also include information about the University’s diversity initiatives and a free speech event that the school was planning. Choi would not say whether or not there were more documents in the 66 pages beyond the three published that are relevant to the Pearsons.
The Pearsons, however, are asking for the original and unredacted copy of the document and “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 2018 story.
It’s not clear why the Pearsons want all 66 pages.
The subpoena states that Choi must turn over “all communications with anyone at The University of Chicago or The Chicago Maroon regarding The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts.”
The Pearsons have also requested information into Choi’s reporting process, asking for “all documents “related to or evidencing the manner in which you or The Chicago Maroon obtained the document… without limitation the identity of the author …. and the location and circumstances under which the document was obtained.”
But Choi is undeterred and insists on protecting his source’s identity.
“I have to go through the documents and make sure that the ones I do provide to them don’t include information that could potentially expose the source or otherwise harm any off the record agreements,” Choi said.
Peter Scheer, lawyer and board president of the First Amendment Coalition, says that Choi has “a very strong case” in fighting the subpoena in court.
“I would imagine that the plaintiff’s counsel didn’t even consider the issue of whether the journalist was a suitable target of a subpoena,” Scheer said in an interview with CNN Business. “It would appear to me that a shield law would probably apply in this case. But I can see some narrow issues that might provide the basis for some debate or litigation on that point.”
Most states have shield laws to protect journalists from having to reveal unnamed sources to authorities. The exceptions to the law however, are what concern Scheer, who says that the fact that Choi is a student could complicate matters. It could be up for debate whether a student journalist is granted the same protections as a journalist reporting as their full-time job.
“Journalists are not going to be able to earn the trust of sources that must remain confidential if those sources believe that a subpoena in a random civil lawsuit can be used to force the disclosure of the identity of the source,” Scheer said.
He added that “It might also have a terrible chilling effect on journalists’ ability to do their job. These things really do matter.”
The Chicago Maroon is completely independent of the University of Chicago, with the exception of a few faculty advisors, and its primary revenue comes from advertising and donations. It was founded in 1892 and publishes every Wednesday. Notable alumni of the paper include former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and David Axelrod, former senior advisor to President Barack Obama and a senior political commentator at CNN.