Court throws out subpoena of student journalist’s video

MONTANA — A University of Montana student cannot beforced to turn over video footage of a Hells Angels rally becauseshe is protected by the state’s shield law, a state court ruledFriday.

Fourth District Judge Douglas Harkin quashed a subpoena filedagainst Linda Tracy by the city of Missoula, ruling that she shouldbe considered a journalist covered by the shield law because sheis "connected with" news agencies and because of herprevious work with Montana public television and her own productioncompany.

Tracy, a UM senior, videotaped a Hells Angels gathering inMissoula in late July 2000 for which she later received academiccredit. Missoula prosecutors wanted access to the footage to furthertheir investigation into altercations involving protesters andpolice.

The prosecutors issued the subpoena in October. Tracy ignoredit, saying she was protected under the state’s Media ConfidentialityAct, which protects "any person connected with or employedby" a news agency.

But the prosecutor’s office argued that Tracy was not protectedby the shield law because she is a student journalist.

In his decision, Harkin said Tracy should be afforded protectionunder the act as "both ‘connected with’ news entities andas a ‘person’ who is gathering and editing news within the meaningof the Montana Media Confidentiality Act." Harkin did notconsider Tracy’s status as a student in determining whether shewas protected by the shield law statute.

The ruling will not set a legal precedent for student journalistsin other states because it was based solely on Montana’s statelaw and not the First Amendment. However, no court has ever ruledthat a college journalist is not covered by a shield law simplybecause of his or her status as a student.

Tracy’s attorney, Rick Sherwood, said Tracy, who will receiveher degree in May, was happy with the decision.

Sherwood said the city has the opportunity to appeal the rulingbut has yet to make any indications as to whether it will do so.

Bill Knowles, chair of UM’s department of radio and television,called the subpoena "the product of a less-than-competentcity attorney. They’re looking to prosecute people who took aswing at a cop [during the protests] and they had no evidenceand she did."

Previous Stories:

Prosecutorssubpoena journalist’s footage of Hells Angles gathering, Winter2000-01 Report

Studentdocumentary director resists subpoena for unpublished footage,(10/27/00)