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Trial judge dismisses subpoena of student journalist

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    NMU         MONTANA         Confidentiality/Privilege         Mar 12, 2001    

Trial judge dismisses subpoena of student journalist

  • Shield law protects the unedited footage a documentarian recorded of a clash between protestors and police at a Hell’s Angels rally.

A Montana trial judge dismissed a subpoena on March 9 issued to a student journalist who had made a video of disturbances between protestors and police at a Hell’s Angels gathering in Missoula.

Judge Douglas Harkin ruled the “shield law affords absolute immunity to those who qualify for its protection.” The court broadly interpreted the protection under the state shield law, the judge wrote.

Linda Tracy, a student at the University of Montana, edited video she and others recorded of police clashing with protesters and onlookers at a Hell’s Angels gathering in July 2000. Her documentary, entitled “Missoula, Montana,” was shown to groups concerned that police had overreacted. Tracy also made her documentary available for free at a local video store. She later received class credit for producing the documentary.

The local prosecutor, Gary Henricks, subpoenaed the unedited video after Tracy refused to turn it over to law enforcement officials investigating the disturbances.

Henricks argued the shield law does not protect Tracy because she is a student, not an employee of a news media outlet. In addition, Henricks pointed out that Tracy used the video documentary for class credit only after she was unable to complete a separate, pre-assigned project. Tracy also owns a video business, “Turtle Majik Productions,” but Henricks mentioned that her state business application makes no mention of investigative journalism as its business purpose.

Harkin ruled that Tracy did qualify for shield law protection because she had gathered footage with an intent “to sell or give the video footage to commercial or public new agencies, television stations, or community antenna television services. Her stated intention is supported by her work with her own business, Turtle Majik Productions, her prior record of similar activities with various news entities, and her subsequent actions in connection with showing and editing the footage.”

Having ruled that the law protected Tracy based on her intent, the court did not specifically address the question of whether the shield law can extend to student journalists at all.

(Tracy v. City of Missoula; Media Counsel: Rick Sherwood, Reynolds, Motl and Sherwood, Missoula, Mont.) DB

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