A Conversation with Jamie Kalven

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. — The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

As a chapter of Reporters Without Borders, we pride ourselves in our willingness to take a stance in protection of the first amendment. We advocate for the freedom of press and the freedom of information, and there are few people in society willing to act upon this mission as strongly as Jamie Kalven, an investigative reporter in the city of Chicago. Kalven visited IU this week and had breakfast with members of our chapter, as well as speak to the general student body in the Franklin Hall commons in the evening.

Jamie Kalven came to IU as part of an effort by the Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies to discuss his work on the death of Chicago teen Laquan McDonald. On October 20, 2014, McDonald was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer who claimed that it was an act of self defense. The official police report told the story of McDonald lunging at the officer with a knife, resulting in the officer shooting him in the chest. This was the official report, but thanks to a whistleblower within law enforcement, Kalven heard a different story. In his article published in The Slate, Kalven described McDonald’s autopsy report which showed a record of sixteen shot wounds. This blatant piece of evidence of a police cover-up caused an uproar within the city and prompted the Department of Justice to conduct their own investigation into corruption within the Chicago Police Department.

For his role in this saga, Kalven was granted a George Polk Award for excellent journalism, and a subpoena from the defense of Officer Jason Van Dyke. They wanted Kalven to reveal his whistleblower, but Kalven refused. In December of 2017, a Chicago judge quashed the subpoena for Kalven’s testimony. This seemed a victory for the First Amendment, but Kalven doesn’t agree. He believes there are two common misconceptions regarding his role in the case. “One of the misconceptions is that I was a hero, but I was just doing my job…The second misconception is that the quashing of the subpoena was a victory for the freedom of the press,” he said. Kalven was represented pro bono (meaning he did not have to pay) with major support from other organizations, but he reminds us that if a minor reporter without his kind of reputation had been caught in this situation, the legal cost would have destroyed them. “What this episode stands for is the proposition that any reporter who has written about a pending case can be hauled into court with as little basis as I was and that’s pretty scary.” he said.

Kalven is the founder of a nonprofit organization in Chicago, The Invisible Institute, and was therefore extremely interested in both the international and domestic mission of Reporters Without Borders. He explained that his writing career began with the completion of his father’s book studying the First Amendment. This book, A Worthy Tradition, granted him such authority on the subject that Yale University offered to create an entire trajectory surrounding this piece of work. Kalven declined. This was one of the most pivotal decisions of his career. “I declined to do it… the decision was that I was going to exercise the First Amendment rather than write about it,” Kalven said.

As he began his work in the public housing sector of Chicago, he maintained his passion for the First Amendment. However, he wanted to make sure he kept his focus on the stories he was telling, rather than the legal ramifications. “We tend in this society to think in overly legalistic terms, as if our freedoms were defined by legislators in courts. Freedom resides with each of us. I think the freedom in a society, or its absence, is constituted of choices that individuals like us make. Choices to speak. Choices to publish, or not … that’s what freedom is,” Kalven said. This powerful statement introduced his true message to our club and others listening. The lack of prior restraint due to the First Amendment is celebrated, but Kalven argues that prior restraint does in fact exist. It exists within each and every one of us in the form of self censorship. “The truth is every day all the time journalists and media organizations are imposing prior restraint on themselves,” he said. Kalven spent his final minutes urging his audience to occupy their roles. Whatever role you may have in this world, whether you are a journalist or a citizen, it is important to occupy that role in its entirety, in order to eliminate self censorship.

As a club, we spend our time focusing on the freedom of information for others, but Kalven reminded us to look into our own work as well. For even if we unknowingly censor our own work, we are part of the problem. Kalven knows that his battle with the law is extreme and that it will not come to that for many of us, but he insists we must not concede even in our own daily lives. “The danger is not that we get thrown in jail, but that we make concessions of our freedom, we give it away, and I think we can take heart from one another, take courage from one another and this could be a very robust time for the First Amendment.”


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