Former Daily editor fought for free speech

Sarah McKenzie

Michele Ames inherited an enormous challenge when she became The Minnesota Daily editor in chief in 1995, one for which she would face $500 in court fines and the threat of jail time.
A contentious two-year legal battle pitting the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office against the student newspaper stared her in the face when she took on the top newsroom position in June 1995.
Prosecutor Mike Freeman wanted editors to turn over unpublished photos from an October 1993 anti-racism rally that erupted into a violent clash near Coffman Union.
He argued the Daily negatives were essential in his felony-assault case against Kieran Knutson, a non-student spectator who admitted hitting University senior David Simmer with a flashlight at the rally.
Simmer was wearing a jacket with neo-Nazi patches but had later said he was not a member of the white-supremacy organization.
Daily editors refused to forfeit the unpublished photos in 1993, arguing the subpoenas threatened their independence as journalists. Ames didn’t veer from her predecessors’ course of action.
To this day, Ames maintains the battle over the unpublished photos was the most traumatic experience of her life. Her critics charged her with protecting the man accused in the attack — a member of the Progressive Student Organization, a left-wing campus group.
Knutson, who claimed he defended himself from a brass-knuckle attack, was acquitted of the assault charges Jan. 28, 1996.
But the verdict was overshadowed by Ames’ court appearance three days before. Judge John Stanoch ordered the Daily to pay $250 for every day of testimony in the Knutson trail — the judge had twice ruled in Ames’ favor but the Minnesota Court of Appeals overruled Stanoch both times.
Professional journalists donated $1,500 to the student paper to help with the $500 in fines and other legal expenses.
“I have never been so terrified,” Ames said, now a political reporter with the Colorado Springs Gazette. “This was a very important time in my life. I feel very fortunate that I had this opportunity to stand up for the First Amendment.”
She said she rarely talks about the Knutson case and dismisses ideas she faced the court action for publicity or to pad her rÇsumÇ.
Her colleagues at the Gazette don’t even know about the incident, she said.
Local media rallied around the Daily, and Ames said the staff was united against turning over the negatives. But Freeman condemned student editors, writing in a November 1995 Star Tribune op-ed column, “an innocent person could go to jail or a guilty person could go free” because of their actions.
Ames said Freeman’s arguments ignored her First Amendment rights as a journalist.
“There was no way he could force me to make the newspaper an investigative arm for the prosecution,” she said.
Other Twin Cities newspaper editors agreed with Ames. Star Tribune editor Tim McGuire wrote an editorial one month after Freeman’s column.
In the editorial, titled “The Daily: Don’t turn a newspaper into a spy,” he reiterated Ames, arguing that “squeezing evidence” from a newspaper for a routine assault case would have a chilling effect on journalists.
In response to the high-profile court battle, state legislators passed a tougher press-shield law in 1998. Under the clarified law, Minnesota journalists are allowed to keep unpublished notes, negatives and tapes confidential and safe from court subpoenas.
— Wire reports contributed to this story.

Sarah McKenzie welcomes comments a [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3222.