Student journalist wins battle to keep motorcycle-rally footage confidential

Judge rules against city prosecutors, says shield law protects videotape

MONTANA -- A July Hells Angels gathering in Missoula left behind more than the usual trail of exhaust and skid marks. It left a student journalist facing a subpoena for several hours of videotaped footage she filmed for a short documentary about the gathering.

Although no court has ever denied a reporter the protection of a shield law just because he or she is a student, city prosecutors in Missoula tried to do just that to University of Montana student Linda Tracy. But their attempt to subpoena Tracy's footage of the gathering failed in March when a state district court ruled that Montana's shield law protects her unpublished material. (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's Media Confidentiality Act because she is a student-not a professional-journalist. The act protects those "connected with" a news agency from being forced to give authorities information collected as part of newsgathering.

Tracy's attorney argued that Tracy should be considered a journalist under the act because she is enrolled in the University of Montana School of Journalism, owns and operates her own documentary film company, received academic credit for the Hells Angels documentary and distributed the videotape to a local video store. The 22-minute film was also shown on public access television.

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

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

"There's just no question that once you gather news and disseminate it, 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 he thinks the city prosecutors used the subpoena as a substitute for real detective work because they lacked evidence in cases against those arrested.

They were "desperate for evidence and embarrassed by the problem," Knowles said. "They're looking to prosecute people who took a swing at a cop and they 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 obligated to help the government in its police work.

"We are not arms of law enforcement -- that's not our job," she said.

reports, Spring 2001