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Monday, April 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Montana Lawmaker Wants to Protect|Journalists From Government Snooping

HELENA, Mont. (CN) - A bill introduced in Montana's House Judiciary Committee would bar state government agencies from accessing digital servers to get reporters' notes.

State Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, introduced House Bill 207 on Jan. 22. It would prohibit Montana state government agencies from accessing digital servers such as Google, Yahoo or Outlook to obtain emails and other electronic communications made by members of the media.

Under Montana's Media Confidentiality Act, reporters cannot be forced to hand over sources, notes, communications or other information to state government officials while working within the scope of their employment.

Zolnikov, 27, said the bill is not meant to change Montana's media shield law, but to close a digital loophole in an age of widespread electronic personal data collection. He said issues with privacy and cybersecurity warrant such legislation.

"Once it's on a gmail server, it's not your information anymore," Zolnikov told Courthouse News Service.

Montana Newspaper Association member John MacDonald said that's the loophole: a scenario in which a government agency might try to obtain information through a digital server. The bill's object is to provide the same blanket of protection to a reporter's information on iCloud or a third-party server as information stored in a computer or notebook.

"A reporter in Montana might refuse to turn over information, citing our shield law here, but a state agency could attempt to get that information through servers," MacDonald told Courthouse News Service. "The purpose of the bill is to prevent that from happening."

The bill was not proposed by the media, MacDonald said. He said Zolnikov took the initiative rather than waiting for an issue to arise, and then react.

"This is not something we sponsored," MacDonald said. "Representative Zolnikov approached us. We were initially hesitant because we are quite proud of our media shield law here in Montana. We didn't want it to be opened up and monkeyed with, for lack of a better term. We were concerned, but he showed us the bill's language and it was something we hadn't really considered. It's nice to be out in front of an issue, instead of reacting to something that has happened."

MacDonald said the bill would be the first of its kind in the nation.

"Freedom of the press is one of the most crucial rights contained in the First Amendment," Zolnikov said on his website. "We've seen unprecedented attacks on the rights of the press in recent years at the federal level, but we can show our support for reporters at the state level."

MacDonald said there has been no perceived opposition to HB 207 and that the bill seems to have the support and momentum for passage.

"I've heard nothing negative from committee members, and it's a rather large committee, with about 20 or 21 members," MacDonald said. "I've had four or five members, Republicans and Democrats, tell me they would support the bill. There were a few questions, but no opposition."

Zolnikov is no stranger to privacy issues. He introduced House Bill 400 in 2013, which would have given consumers control over their personal data and prevented companies from reselling it behind their backs. Labeled as "anti-business," the bill never made it out of committee.

Zolnikov's House Bill 603 did, however, and became law before Edward Snowden leaked information about a secret surveillance program run by the National Security Administration.

H.B. 603 stated, in part: "A government entity may not obtain the location information of an electronic device without a search warrant issued by a duly authorized court."

"Over the last two years I've had quite a lot of national attention from the privacy bill I helped pass," Zolnikov told Courthouse News. "I had been working on the Michael Hastings incident and the freedom of the press, looking into protections, and discovered there was a loophole there and a string of ideas came into play."

Hastings, who was killed at 33 in a fiery, high-speed car crash in Los Angeles in June 2013, wrote for Rolling Stone Magazine and was a reporter for the online media company BuzzFeed.

He was a critic of what he described as the "surveillance state," which included the Department of Justice's investigation of reporters in 2013. He referred to the Obama administration's snooping on reporters as a "war" on journalism, according to a lengthy, posthumous New York Magazine article, "Who Killed Michael Hastings?"

Zolnikov said: "Sometimes you have to be the first to take a step. If passed, [this bill] could set a precedent for other states. That's what we want. North Dakota doesn't have any shield law, at all. I think the states can do it."

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