In December 2017, Jamie Kalven, a seasoned reporter and human rights activist, sat in a packed Chicago courtroom, flanked by his four lawyers. A swarm of journalists looked on as a defense team accused him of leading an anti-police campaign that contributed to the indictment of a police officer. He faced the possibility of being held in contempt of court and jailed.
Tuesday, Kalven recounted his battle to protect a confidential source for an article he wrote about the October 2014 police shooting of Chicago teenager Laquan McDonald. He gave a public talk, “Challenging the Official Narrative: Investigating the Killing of Laquan McDonald,” in Franklin Hall, sponsored by the Barbara Restle Press Law Project and the Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies. The talk was a question-and-answer session with associate professor and CIMLAPS director Tony Fargo.
Kalven’s Slate.com article, “Sixteen Shots,” challenged the official police statement that McDonald lunged at police officers with a knife, prompting one of the officers to fire his gun and shoot McDonald in the chest in self-defense. His reporting uncovered dash cam footage that showed McDonald never lunged at anybody and was shot by Officer Jason Van Dyke 16 times, mostly when he was already lying on the pavement.
After Van Dyke was indicted on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated battery, his lawyer subpoenaed Kalven, asking him to name the confidential informant who told him the footage existed. Kalven fought the subpoena, saying he’d go to jail rather than comply. Last month, the judge dismissed the subpoena, calling it a “fishing expedition.”
“There are two profound misconceptions about that controversy,” Kalven said. “One is that I was some kind of hero in this. I was just doing my job. I was just abiding by my job description. It was never a choice. It never occurred to me to do anything other than refuse to comply with the subpoena. It’s inconceivable that I ever would have exposed the whistleblower in the Laquan McDonald case, who took considerable risk and performed an immense public service.
“The second misconception is that the quashing of the subpoena was a victory for freedom of the press. It wasn’t.”
Kalven said that in cases of police shootings in Chicago, an official narrative emerges from the police department, and the press nearly always prints that narrative as fact. And usually, the case quickly fades from public conversation.
“Nothing would have come of this case were it not for the whistleblower,” Kalven said. “Because there’s no tradition or history or really capacity in the press, generally, to cover these stories.”
In his reporting, Kalven turned to civilian witnesses, who he said had been threatened with arrest or badgered into silence by police. He also got a hold of the dash cam footage and the autopsy report, detailing the injuries McDonald sustained in the shooting. All of the information Kalven collected showed a violent and senseless shooting of a 17-year-old boy.
Once the story came out, it was picked up by media outlets all over the country, but Chicago’s leaders remained silent, he said. When they finally responded to the article, they continued to reinforce what had originally been reported by officers at the scene.
To this day, the Laquan McDonald case is often referred to as a cover-up by the Chicago Police Department and the mayor. Kalven disagrees.
“I really wish it were a cover-up in the sense that, if that’s the diagnosis, the prescription is: If they’re public officials, vote them out of office. If they committed a crime, indict them,” Kalven said. “But I truly have come to believe that this was standard operating procedure. This was the way these cases had been handled many, many times before. This was machinery that was in place, and everybody knew their roles, from the officers on the scene up to the highest levels of the city.”
This wasn’t the first time Kalven had been subpoenaed. For years, he reported on police abuse in poor, inner-city neighborhoods in Chicago, an environment he likens to apartheid South Africa. When he was asked to hand over his notes after a particular article was published, he turned the tables on them and asked for access to the city’s police misconduct information, which had previously been sealed. Now, after many years of fighting, these records are public information.
“The court established a principle, but that principle is not self-executing,” Kalven said. “It’s like saying we’re free because of the First Amendment. Well, we’re only free if we exercise the First Amendment. The principle of transparency only matters when you have meaningful access to the documents and can make sense of them.”
Kalven founded the journalism production company The Invisible Institute, which developed the Citizens Police Data Project, a resource that provides a digital infrastructure to house all the information found in these police misconduct files and synthesize it in a way that is interesting and understandable.
“These complaints almost always come from a citizen in a marginalized community, almost always a person of color seeking redress for what they felt was abuse by the state,” he said. “So it’s an amazing collection of those stories.”
The concept of giving a voice to the marginalized or the oppressed has been an integral part of Kalven’s career as a journalist. He is interested in covering the people and places that have largely been forgotten about by mainstream media.
Kalven hasn’t just covered these topics, though. He’s also made an effort to contribute to these communities and established bonds with their residents over the years. He said this has led some people to doubt his abilities and integrity as a journalist.
“I’m almost always described in media, particularly in Chicago, with a string of adjectives, because nobody knows quite how to characterize the career I’ve had. I’m a writer and an activist; I’m a journalist and an advocate. Often that’s used against me. The fact that I’ve taken my role as a citizen seriously and passionately is used to impeach the writing,” Kalven said. “I have always worked to the highest standards of the profession, but I’ve never understood that as precluding me from caring about things, acting as a citizen and as a neighbor and as a certain kind of activist.”
This was the sentiment Van Dyke’s defense team took when they stood in a Chicago court room, accusing Kalven of using his reporting as a way to strip the officer of his right to a fair trial.
Even with increasing challenges to a free press, Kalven remains hopeful. The right to free speech is not bestowed upon the American people because of the Constitution, he said. Instead, it has been fought for time and again by everyday people who believe in its power.
“In this society, because we have the great fortune of having the Constitution, we tend to think in over-legalistic terms about freedom, as if our freedoms were defined by legislatures and courts,” Kalven said. “But freedom is not in that space. It resides with each of us. I think the freedom in a society, or its absence, is really constituted of choices that individuals like us make. Choices to speak, or be silent. Choices to publish, or not. Choices to resist intrusions like subpoenas, or acquiesce. That’s what freedom is.”