Contacts: Christine Tatum, SPJ Legal Defense Fund chairwoman, 312/222-5184 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, 406/542-4400 or email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists has helped a University of Montana student win her battle against handing over raw, unedited video footage to police authorities.
District Judge Douglas Harkin ruled Friday, March 9, that student Linda Tracy is protected under Montana’s state shield law from surrendering her raw footage of a Hell’s Angels motorcycle club’s visit to Missoula last year. The judge said Montana law "provides an absolute privilege against the forced disclosure of information" that journalists gather. The city of Missoula had subpoenaed Tracy to turn over the footage.
The Society gave Tracy a $1,000 Legal Defense Fund grant to help pay her legal bills as she fought the city of Missoula’s subpoena.
"From the beginning, we believed Linda Tracy should have her day in court," said Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman and special projects coordinator for KPAX-TV in Montana. "Our contribution helped make that possible. In the end, Judge Harkin made the proper call and underscored the intent of the Montana Media Confidentiality Act. Let us hope the city pursues this no further, and the judge’s ruling makes an end of this case."
Last July, when Tracy shot her footage, the Hell’s Angels visit ended with a violent clash between police and citizens on downtown streets that led to more than 60 arrests. Tracy edited her footage to a 20-minute video documentary that has been publicly available and was carried on Missoula’s community access television channel.
In October, Missoula law enforcement officials subpoenaed all of Tracy’s unedited tapes to identify "known and unknown" lawbreakers. City officials claimed Tracy’s raw footage was not protected under Montana’s reporter shield law because she has not yet earned a journalism degree and does not work for a media outlet.
The Society and other media organizations in Montana helped Tracy fight the city’s subpoena, contending that all journalists have the same protections under state shield laws. The judge’s ruling supported SPJ’s position.
"SPJ is working hard to ensure that more journalism students are grounded to uphold the tenets of our profession with the same conviction and integrity as Linda Tracy," said Christine Tatum, chairwoman of the Society’s Legal Defense Fund. "This case clearly demonstrates the Society’s tremendous value to all journalists. I fear what might have come of this case had Linda not had so many professionals backing her."
The Society’s Legal Defense Fund offers financial assistance to journalists. To apply for an LDF grant in situations like these, contact Tatum at 312/658-3874 or firstname.lastname@example.org.