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Two newspapers struggle with giving, getting information

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 17, 2009 - Federal authorities in Las Vegas have narrowed their request for identifying information on anonymous posters to a Las Vegas Journal-Review story about an IRS prosecution. An initial subpoena sought information on about 100 people who posted comments to the story; the new subpoena seeks information on two.

The newspaper had said it would resist the broad subpoena but now will turn over information on the two posters whose messages could be read as threatening. One of the two called jury members trying a tax evasion case "12 dummies" and said they "should be hung" if they convict a Las Vegas man, Robert Kahre, and three others. The other poster wanted to wager mythical "Star Trek" currency on the bet that one of the federal prosecutors would not reach his next birthday.

The newspaper had challenged the first subpoena as so broad it would chill free speech by discouraging people from posting to the site. (Actually, it seems to have done the opposite because the newspaper reports that 200 posters have now filed comments on the story.)

But editor Thomas Mitchell said he would turn over any information the paper had on the two more threatening posts. "I'd hate to be the guy who refused to tell the feds Timothy McVeigh was buying fertilizer," Mitchell said, referring to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

The ACLU insists that no identifying information should be disclosed. "The right to speak anonymously about politics is older than the Constitution," said ACLU attorney Margaret McLetchie.

Meanwhile in Chicago....

The Chicago Tribune sued the University of Illinois on Tuesday to obtain the grade-point averages and standardized test scores of hundreds of applicants who were on a list of well-connected students.

The newspaper emphasized in its filing under the state Freedom of Information Act that it is not seeking personal identifying information to link the scores to the students names. The university maintains it cannot provide the information because of federal student-privacy laws.

The university turned over 1,800 pages of documents that led to the paper's series "Clout Goes to College." The series detailed efforts by state politicians to help well-connected students get into the university. But university President Joseph White refused to turn over records on grade-point averages and test scores, citing the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The newspaper says that law does not apply because it is not seeking personally identifiable information.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.