Updated May 25 at 10:25 a.m.
A wealthy family suing the University of Chicago to get back part of a $100 million donation has subpoenaed student journalists at the school’s newspaper who wrote about the issue.
Lawyers for the Pearson Family Members Foundation want UChicago senior Euirim Choi to hand over documents that were leaked to the student paper and used in a news story about the Pearson donation. It detailed how the relationship between the family and the university had deteriorated and how the conflict began.
Last March, Choi, then managing editor of The Chicago Maroon newspaper, wrote an article revealing the Pearson family was suing the University of Chicago. The family was alleging a $100 million gift to the university was being mismanaged, among other allegations, which UChicago denied. The money was donated to create the Pearson Institute, a center to study ways to end global conflict. The Pearson family is trying to claw $22.9 million of the money they've donated so far. The rest of the gift was revoked.
Now, The Maroon and Choi are being subpoenaed to turn over documents, which The Maroon published with redactions. Choi said The Maroon does not have a copy of the papers, which is why he was also subpoenaed. Choi is the only person who worked on the story who still has access to the documents.
The Maroon was given 66 pages of documents, which included details about the Pearson donation, by a man who claimed he found them in the garbage by a CTA station. Choi said he doesn’t know how the papers got there. The documents showed the relationship between the family and UChicago was strained, but The Maroon did not publish them until Choi discovered the family was suing the university in federal court in Oklahoma. The documents also cover other university matters unrelated to the Pearson donation. The Pearsons want all 66 pages of the documents.
Choi says he plans to fight the subpoena.
“If the Pearsons were able to obtain those documents unredacted we’re kind of worried that it’s possible that the university might … be able to identify the original source,” Choi said.
In the meantime, UChicago has countersued to get the lawsuit dismissed.
In a statement, current editors Lee Harris and Elaine Chen confirmed they also received a subpoena.
“While we were surprised upon first receiving the subpoena, we understand that this information-gathering may be a largely procedural step in the lawsuit,” the statement said. “We are figuring out next steps.”
The University of Chicago said in a statement they are reaching out to Maroon staff to help identify capable legal counsel and they recognize the editorial independence of the student paper and its staff.
Choi, who is a senior, said he’s talked to lawyers to help him find someone to represent him pro bono. He believes shield laws that protect journalists from being compelled to reveal confidential information would apply to him. But the law isn’t always clear.
“How they define the word journalist in many jurisdictions is somewhat ambiguous,” said Choi. “They often define a journalist as someone who regularly produces or edits the news and it’s unclear whether that actually applies to student journalists.”
Choi has the support of the Student Press Law Center.
“Forcing any journalist to provide unpublished information and disclose their contacts with sources to help a party to a lawsuit makes it less likely that sources will work with them, which is something that hurts not only the press but all of us,” Mike Hiestand, the Student Press Law Center's senior legal counsel.
Choi must respond to the subpoena by June 3, a little less than two weeks before UChicago’s commencement.
“I wanted to keep playing frisbee with my friends,” Choi said. “But I have to deal with this for the remaining weeks. It’s a stressful time.”
This story was updated to clarify some details about the documents received by The Maroon and to say the Pearson Family Members Foundation is only seeking to recover part of their donation, or $22.9 million. They revoked the rest of the donation.
Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed a quote by Mike Hiestand, the Student Press Law Center's senior legal counsel, to Euirim Choi.