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N.D. ambulance company sues documentary filmmaker

The filmmaker said he had permission shoot footage of an oil rig accident on an ambulance ride along; the ambulance company says he didn't and is taking him to court to prevent its use

By Katherine Lymn
Dickinson Press

KILLDEER, N.D. — The Killdeer Area Ambulance Service is bringing a documentarian to court in an effort to prevent him from using footage a cameraman got during a call to a rig accident.

Todd Melby, a reporter for the “Black Gold Boom” documentary and website that portrays how oil has transformed western North Dakota, had been working with the ambulance service for material on the issue of oilfield injuries and deaths.

“It definitely has potential because what happened illustrates the dangers of the oilfields in North Dakota,” Melby said of the footage the ambulance service is after. He said small Oil Patch ambulance services like Killdeer’s are “having to deal with more and more stresses.”

At issue is footage from March. Melby said the cameraman had permission to go along to the response; the ambulance service said he didn’t.

Melby had repeatedly been denied access to such “live” ambulance responses but said for the day in question, ambulance manager Ann Hafner gave him permission.

Killdeer Ambulance is now trying to prevent Melby from using any footage obtained on the run.

Melby said the case is an attack on the First Amendment in the form of prior restraint, or pre-publication censorship. He said he hasn’t yet decided whether he will use footage from the ambulance run in his final project.

Mark Anfinson, a Minneapolis media law attorney representing Melby, said it’s a clear-cut case.

“From Todd’s perspective, it’s a flat-out unconstitutional prior restraint,” Anfinson said. “There’s nothing that allows it to happen so it’s gonna be a pretty straightforward argument.”

At a July 9 hearing, the judge will either lengthen the injunction or throw it out, Anfinson said.

Haylee Cripe, a lawyer for Killdeer Ambulance, declined to comment.

In a brief, she wrote the court should grant an injunction because a violation of health privacy laws could cost the ambulance service money in fines and harm its reputation, and because the ambulance service felt Melby fraudulently gained access to the run.

“Had Melby and his cameraman been truthful, they would not have been allowed on the ambulance, and would not have obtained the footage in question,” Cripe wrote.

Anfinson said it’s more common to punish after something has been published than to prevent its publication in the first place.

“You can punish people after the fact if they speak improperly; for example, if they libel someone or violate copyrights or disclose private information,” he said, “but preventing them from ever disseminating the information in advance, that is regarded as a tremendous threat to the whole philosophy of the First Amendment.”

Killdeer Ambulance wrote in court filings it is bringing the action to protect the privacy of the patient who required medical attention that day in March and to protect its reputation.

But Melby questioned the motive.

“I would never send my camera guy on an ambulance had we not had permission, and I believe we did have permission,” Melby said. “In addition to that, this story is a very important story about the dangers of what’s happening in oil country in North Dakota. And so I gotta wonder what their motivation is for trying to prevent me from telling that full story.”


©2014 the Dickinson Press (Dickinson, N.D.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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