Jamie Kalven is a writer and human rights activist. His work has appeared in a variety of publications. In recent years, he has reported extensively on patterns of police abuse and impunity in Chicago.
The first phase of his writing career was devoted to a single project. His father, Harry Kalven, Jr., a professor of law at the University of Chicago, died in 1974. At the time of his death, he was working on a massive book on the American tradition of freedom of speech. Kalven spent more than a decade completing his father's manuscript and preparing it for publication. Titled A Worthy Tradition: Freedom of Speech in America, it was published in 1988 by Harper & Row.
While immersed in A Worthy Tradition, Kalven published an analysis of the First Amendment theory of Judge Robert Bork in the Nation. Bork responded in the American Bar Association Journal; Kalven, in turn, replied in the Nation. Several years later, when President Reagan named Bork to the U. S. Supreme Court, this exchange figured centrally in debate over the merits of the nomination.
In the fall of 1988, Kalven's wife Patricia Evans was severely beaten and sexually assaulted while running on Chicago’s lakefront. Several years later, he began working on a narrative account of the impact of this act of cruelty on his wife, their family and community. Titled Working With Available Light: A Family’s World After Violence, it was published in 1999 by W. W. Norton.
Since the early 1990s, Kalven has had a parallel career working in inner city Chicago neighborhoods. He has served as consultant to the resident council of the Stateway Gardens public housing development and currently serves as consultant to the residents of the Henry Horner Homes. At Stateway Gardens, he created a program of “grassroots public works” aimed at creating alternatives for ex-offenders and gang members. And he worked to develop human rights monitoring strategies; among them, an online publication called The View From The Ground.
While immersed in public housing, Kalven extended assistance to other reporters, providing background and access to sources. This aspect of his work was described in a segment of the NPR program On the Media titled “Man on the Street.”
Kalven's reporting on patterns of police abuse at Stateway Gardens in 2005-2006 gave rise to a federal civil rights suit – Bond v. Utreras – that figured centrally in public debate over police reform in Chicago. His articles became the focus of a protracted legal controversy, when he refused to comply with a subpoena from the City of Chicago demanding his notes.
As the Bond case was settled and the threat of contempt receded, he intervened in the case and requested that various documents produced in the course of discovery by the Chicago Police Department under a protective order be made public. Judge Joan Lefkow ruled in his favor. The City appealed. Kalven's position was joined on appeal by twenty-eight aldermen--a majority of the Chicago City Council--and was supported by an amicus brief filed by major media organizations (Associated Press, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, and the Gannett and Copley chains). In 2009, the U. S. Court of Appeals overturned Judge Lefkow's decision on procedural grounds, but the underlying legal principle she articulated in Bond continues to be relied on by other district court judges.
In 2009, Kalven renewed his pursuit of the documents at issue in Bond in state court under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. On March 10, 2014, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled in Kalven v. Chicago that documents bearing on allegations of police misconduct are public information. The ruling has been hailed by civil rights lawyers as "historic" and "a watershed."
Among the awards Kalven has received are the 2015 Polk Award for Local Reporting, the 2016 Ridenhour Courage Prize, and the 2017 Hillman Prize for Web Journalism.