A University of Montana journalism student who videotaped last July’s Hells Angels visit and the disturbances that ensued between police and protesters in downtown Missoula will not be forced to surrender her unedited videotapes to the city, a court ruled Friday.
In an order issued March 9 by Missoula District Court Judge Douglas Harkin, the court determined that UM journalism senior Linda Tracy successfully demonstrated her right to claim protection under the Montana Media Confidentiality Act—more commonly known as the “shield law”—which protects journalists from being forced to disclose sources or material gathered in the course of their work.
While Judge Harkin declined to define Tracy as a journalist per se, he did determine that “by virtue of her work prior to recording the video in question … Tracy is connected with news agencies, news services, radio stations, and television stations” as defined in Montana’s shield law.
Tracy had asserted shield law protection based on her connections or employment with Montana Community Access Television, KPAX-TV, Cold Mountain Cold Rivers (a “news organization”), her work on several video projects, and the fact that she started her own video production company, Turtle Majik Productions.
Tracy’s case drew national attention after she was served with a subpoena on Oct. 11 demanding that she turn over all unedited videotapes from the Hells Angel weekend in an effort by the city to prosecute individuals “both known and unknown” for charges ranging from trespassing and vandalism to felony assault on a police officer. Several media organizations, including the Montana Newspaper Association and the Society of Professional Journalists, contributed to Tracy’s legal defense.
In a hearing before Judge Harkin last week, Deputy City Attorney Gary Henricks tried to prove that Tracy failed to establish herself as a bona fide journalist—and thus undeserving of shield law privileges—because her videotape, “Missoula Montana,” did not conform with “accepted journalistic standards for objectivity, accuracy, and lack of bias.”
Judge Harkin rejected that argument.
“Persons seeking the protection afforded by the Montana shield law are not required to prove that their work product meets any sort of content test, such as ‘fair’ or ‘balanced’ in order to receive protection for their product and sources,” writes Harkin. “A content test is absent from the shield law, and this Court respectfully declines to … practice judicial activism by a tortured interpretation of the Act that would require the Court to decide if the person has produced a ‘responsible’ work product.”
Henricks says the city does not plan to appeal the ruling.