Editor in chief battles in court over negatives

by Craig Gustafson

Editor’s note: This is the last in a 10-part series of stories highlighting each decade of the 20th century and how The Minnesota Daily covered them. The series appeared on Wednesdays leading up to the Daily’s 100th anniversary on May 1, 2000, and will culminate with a special edition that will be available in bookstores May 12. We hope you enjoy this trip through time.

Weapons for defending First Amendment rights come in a variety of forms. The U.S. Constitution and the letter of the law usually fulfill that role, but for the editor of The Minnesota Daily in the mid-1990s, the weapons were a toothbrush and an extra pair of underwear.
Those were the items Daily Editor in Chief Michele Ames carried with her to the Hennepin County courthouse each day in 1995 as prosecutors attempted to force the newspaper to turn over unpublished photographs of an assault two years earlier.
Every time she went to court she didn’t know if her newspaper’s stance would land her in jail that night for contempt of court. The toothbrush and underwear were her backup.
The situation arose after what should have been a routine Daily story of a Coffman Union rally turned into one of the most important First Amendment cases in recent state history.
In October 1993, a group of anti-racism protesters gathered in front of the union to protest a Nazi rally that was supposed to take place that day. When a man, wearing a jacket and boots laced with symbols associated with white supremacist organizations, crossed the Washington Avenue Bridge, demonstrators surrounded him.
The man, Daniel Simmer, was struck in the head with a metal flashlight and pulled down a flight of stairs as several protesters spit on him. It took more than 20 University Police officers to break up the confrontation.
Simmer, a purported Nazi, suffered minor injuries. His alleged attacker, Kieran Knutson, was charged with two counts of felony assault.
The story led the following Monday’s Daily, accompanied by a photo.
Almost immediately, Hennepin County Prosecutor Michael Freeman subpoenaed the unpublished photos Daily photographers took at the rally.
In June 1994, the Daily got a judge to override the subpoena.
But the Minnesota Free Flow of Information Act — the formal name for the state’s shield law protecting the work of reporters — only protected anonymous sources.
The stodginess of the 1973 law resulted in the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversing the judge’s decision and a tug-of-war began.
If the Daily had gone along with the ruling, Ames said the newspaper would have risked setting a bad precedent for the journalistic community.
Turning over the requested negatives was never an option, she said.
“This entire case was not about First Amendment rights, it was about our First Amendment responsibility,” Ames said. “This was about The Minnesota Daily protecting the right to gather news without becoming an extension of law enforcement.
“I wanted (readers) to have confidence in the Daily.”
By the time the trial eventually got underway in 1996, the court ruled 11 times with regard to the subpoena. Only a third of those rulings were in favor of the Daily.
Because of the Daily’s limited budget, the newspaper could ill afford to continually appeal the court ruling to hand over the negatives.
So in January 1996, Ames and more than 100 Daily staff members crowded into a Hennepin County courtroom and drew a line in the sand.
“On behalf of the staff of the Daily … we respectively decline to comply with the order,” Ames told the judge.
The court held Ames in contempt and levied a $250 fine at her for each day of noncompliance while the assault trial continued. The judge decided not to throw the editor in jail.
More than two dozen local media organizations signed a brief supporting the Daily’s case. Some supporters even raised $1,500 to help pay for the fines.
The fine, however, never reached great heights because the trial finished in two days. Knutson was acquitted of the assault charge.
As a direct result of the Daily case, state legislators passed a new press shield law in 1998, allowing journalists to keep unpublished notes, negatives and tapes confidential and safe from court subpoenas.
Ames, now a political reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette, said she still harbors deep convictions about the case and her role in Daily history.
“The Minnesota Daily has a long, proud history of taking our responsibility very seriously,” Ames said. “In situations where other organizations are forced to back down … the Daily has stepped up to the plate and said no.”

Craig Gustafson welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3222.