Montana Shield Laws Now Cover Online Documents

In an era when the federal government repeatedly pressures journalists to compromise sources, legal protection for Montana reporters got a bit stronger.

The 2015 Montana Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill that extended the state’s shield law into the digital realm. Now notes made in Google documents or on other online platforms and emails between reporters and sources are safe from state or local government subpoenas.

It’s the first law of its kind in the country, and a proactive measure for Montana.

“The real question was: do we need to see an abuse occur before we start protecting our rights?” Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, the Billings Republican who sponsored the legislation, said.

Mike Meloy, a Helena attorney who has long been a First Amendment advocate, said the bill was more symbolic than substantive. With one of the best shield laws in the country, Montana’s old law would have likely covered digital servers.

The upside is third-party server operators now know to withhold information if a court order comes in the mail. Plus, maybe the idea will catch on.

“What this bill does, I think, is call attention to the fact that there is a gap in most shield laws around the country which could be exploited,” Meloy said.

In Montana, that gap has been filled.

A UM Journalism School and MJR alum, Alexander Deedy worked at the Helena Independent Record for over a year before moving to Hawaii to work as a freelance writer.