A University of Montana student cannot be forced to turn over video footage of a Hells Angels rally because she is protected by the state’s shield law, a state court ruled March 9.
Fourth District Judge Douglas Harkin quashed a subpoena filed against Linda Tracy by the city of Missoula, ruling that she should be considered a journalist covered by the shield law because she is “connected with” news agencies and because of her previous work with Montana public television and her own production company.
Tracy, a UM senior, videotaped a Hells Angels gathering in Missoula in late July 2000 for which she later received academic credit. Missoula prosecutors wanted access to the footage to further their investigation into altercations involving protesters and police.
The prosecutors issued the subpoena in October. Tracy ignored it, saying she was protected under the state’s Media Confidentiality Act, which protects “any person connected with or employed by” a news agency.
But the prosecutor’s office argued that Tracy was not protected by the shield law because she is a student journalist.
In his decision, Harkin said Tracy should be afforded protection under the act as “both ‘connected with’ news entities and as a ‘person’ who is gathering and editing news within the meaning of the Montana Media Confidentiality Act.” Harkin did not consider Tracy’s status as a student in determining whether she was protected by the shield law statute.
Tracy’s attorney, Rick Sherwood, said the city has the opportunity to appeal the ruling but has yet to make any indications as to whether it will do so.
SPLC SENSE: The ruling will not set a legal precedent for student journalists in other states because it was based solely on Montana’s state law and not the First Amendment. However, no court has ever ruled that a college journalist is not covered by a shield law simply because of his or her status as a student. Student journalists receiving a subpoena are urged to contact their attorney or the Student Press Law Center immediately.