Is Kathy Gilbert a journalist?
The answer to that question may determine whether attorneys from Metro Nashville's Department of Law can force Gilbert and her employer, United Methodist Communications, to turn over unedited video footage from an interview Gilbert conducted in July 2008 with Juana Villegas.
Villegas, an undocumented alien from Mexico, is suing the city in federal court over her detention for driving without a license on July 3, 2008 and subsequent treatment. Nine months pregnant at the time of her arrest, she went into labor in her cell two days after her arrest. Davidson County Sheriff's Office personnel transported her to General Hospital, where they shackled her to her bed for much of the time before and after she gave birth to a son.
On July 29, 2008, Gilbert and another UMC staffer posted an article based on the interview with Villegas. She is quoted as tearfully recounting her experience. The report highlighted the efforts of Justice For Our Neighbors, a network sponsored by the United Methodist church, in advocating for humane treatment of persons found to be in the U.S. illegally.
Metro attorney Kevin Klein sent UMC a subpoena earlier this month, seeking a copy of "the entire, unedited video interview" with Villegas. UMC, represented by Joel Eckert of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP, filed a motion on Wednesday to quash the subpoena. In an accompanying memorandum, it invokes a state law meant to protect journalists from being dragged into court as witnesses. UMC argues as follows:
This interview is entitled to the privilege set forth in the Tennessee Shield Law because United Methodist Communications is "news or media" and the video interview is the kind of information that is protected by the Shield Law. United Methodist Communications is "news media or press" under the Shield Law by virtue of the fact that its purpose is the dissemination of information to both the denomination and the general public, a purpose that accomplishes by the use of multiple media to create print, online, and video stories.
The memorandum discusses at length the reasons UMC claims that Gilbert is a journalist, as defined by the law. Doug Pierce, a King and Ballow attorney not involved in the case who is currently serving as president of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, told NashvillePost.com that UMC's reasoning looks sound to him.
"A lot of courts across the country have correctly recognized that if a person is out there trying to gather information so they can widely disseminate it, then that person probably is a journalist entitled to the shield law's protection," Pierce said.
Metro Legal Associate Director Jim Charles said yesterday that he had not yet seen the UMC filing and could not comment on its assertions, but that Metro will file a response soon. "We'll put it before the court, and the court will decide," Charles said. "We're just trying to get discovery done here."
The U.S. District Court docket for the Villegas lawsuit states that during a settlement conference in May, "the parties made substantial progress toward a potential resolution of the matter" but that "several items remain which require further discussion." The record does not reflect whether settlement talks have continued, but later in May, Judge William J. Haynes Jr. set a trial date of March 1, 2011.