Student journalist wins battle to keep motorcycle-rally footage confidential

MONTANA — A July Hells Angels gathering in Missoula left behindmore than the usual trail of exhaust and skid marks. It left a studentjournalist facing a subpoena for several hours of videotaped footage shefilmed for a short documentary about the gathering.

Although no court has ever denied a reporter the protection of a shieldlaw just because he or she is a student, city prosecutors in Missoula triedto do just that to University of Montana student Linda Tracy. But theirattempt to subpoena Tracy’s footage of the gathering failed in March whena state district court ruled that Montana’s shield law protects her unpublishedmaterial. (Tracy v. City of Missoula, No. DV-00 849 (Mont. Dist.Ct. March 9, 2001.)

City prosecutors argued that Tracy was not protected under Montana’sMedia Confidentiality Act because she is a student-not a professional-journalist.The act protects those “connected with” a news agency from being forcedto give authorities information collected as part of newsgathering.

Tracy’s attorney argued that Tracy should be considered a journalistunder the act because she is enrolled in the University of Montana Schoolof Journalism, owns and operates her own documentary film company, receivedacademic credit for the Hells Angels documentary and distributed the videotapeto a local video store. The 22-minute film was also shown on public accesstelevision.

Judge Douglas Harkin based his ruling on Tracy’s connections with newsagencies and did not consider her status as a student in the case.

Bill Knowles, chair of UM’s Radio and Television department said hebelieves Tracy’s actions and connections make her a journalist.

“There’s just no question that once you gather news and disseminateit, you’re a journalist,” he said.

Knowles, who testified on Tracy’s behalf in hearings before the judge,characterized prosecutors’ efforts as a “fishing expedition” and said hethinks the city prosecutors used the subpoena as a substitute for realdetective work because they lacked evidence in cases against those arrested.

They were “desperate for evidence and embarrassed by the problem,” Knowlessaid. “They’re looking to prosecute people who took a swing at a cop andthey had no evidence and she did.”

Tracy said she is “really, really pleased” with the judge’s decision.City prosecutors have indicated they are unlikely to appeal.Christine Tatum, chairwoman of the Society of Professional Journalists’legal defense fund, which gave Tracy $1,000 to help her with legal fees,said the case reminds government officials that journalists are not obligatedto help the government in its police work.

“We are not arms of law enforcement — that’s not our job,” she said.