Pastor says media shield law protects him, while lobbyist wants trial moved from Sidney

By: - November 30, 2021 6:09 pm

A picture of the Tweet where Jordan Hall of the Gideon Knox Group makes a spot for Attorney Raph Graybill among the trophies on his wall. (Twitter)

Lawyers for a transgender Native American lobbyist have asked a Richland County Court for a change of venue after they say the defendant, a Baptist minister who also runs an online newspaper, has potentially tainted the jury pool with broadcasts, videos and social media postings.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the minister and his media group are invoking a media shield law, meant to protect journalists’ sources, in their fight to thwart the libel lawsuit, which centers on a disputed incident at the Capitol during the 2021 legislative session.

Lawyers for Adrian Jawort argue that Pastor Jordan “JD” Hall has used a radio station, YouTube videos, his newspaper and his role as a minister to taint the potential jury pool in Richland County. They suggest moving it to Yellowstone County, where Jawort lives.

“He frequently calls upon jurors in Richland County to vindicate him in his fight,” the court documents argue.

Hall characterizes Jawort and her team as the “LGBTQ Mafia.” The filing documents at least seven times that Hall, whose parish is in Sidney, says he will “prevail because the case is venued in Richland County.”

But Jawort, who was the subject of an article in the Montana Daily Gazette, which is run by Hall, isn’t the only person who has become the target in Hall’s posts. Hall has taken aim at Raph Graybill, one of three attorneys who are working on the case for Jawort. Graybill ran unsuccessfully in 2020 against Republican Austin Knudsen for the Attorney General, and that race is often referenced by Hall.

In one post, Hall displays what appears to be a wall of mounted hunting trophies on his wall with a blank trophy mount and “Raph Graybill” printed beneath.

“Good morning to everyone except Raph Graybill, Planned Parenthood’s attorney who is suing me for what your client calls ‘transphobia.’ I made room for your ‘metaphoric head’ on one of my trophy walls, for post-court. I’m more than eager to do this. PS your client is a man” the Tweet from Sept. 7 reads.

Hall’s posts include referencing the attorney general’s race in 2020 with results from Richland County.

“If it makes it to a jury, here’s how bad (attorney Graybill) lost in Richland County in the General Election 2020. Best Wishes. But not really,” Hall said.

In another, “Graybill is considered the best the Democratic Party has to offer in Montana. If necessary, twelve jurors in Richland County will prove to him that’s not quite good enough.”

Hall has framed the issue as more than just a legal fight between a lobbyist and a newspaper.

“This is a holy battle that we are in, like it or not,” the court documents read. “I mean hey, Raph Graybill is welcome to meet 12 of my peers in a jury in Richland County if he wants.”

The lawsuit contends that Hall has advocated death for Graybill and the attorneys, also warping the chances of a fair trial in Sidney.

“Listen, don’t jack with the army of the living God because they’ll kill you,” Hall quoted as saying. “Take that as metaphorically if you want.”

Hall explained on video that God had appeared to him, giving him permission to target Graybill.

“The Lord was not sufficient in me taking the scalp of a confused man in a dress in a legal courtroom, and instead he wants me to take the head of a giant,” which attorneys say refers to Graybill.

Graybill told the Daily Montanan that he’s never met or spoken previously to Hall so he’s uncertain why he’s being targeted for representing Jawort.

“The casual threats of violence, whether in jest or not, are never appropriate,” Graybill said.

Because of the heavy inundation of Hall’s messaging, especially in Richland County, Jawort’s lawyers argue that the potential jury pool may be prejudicial.

“Ordinarily, the parties to the litigation are not the same media sources that may influence public opinion,” the brief states.

Media shield

In a separate filing, Hall’s attorney, Matthew Monforton, argues that a media source shield law protects Hall from revealing sources that provided the Montana Daily Gazette with information that led to Hall reporting that Jawort harassed Sen. Butch Gillespie so badly that he needed the protection of the Montana Senate’s Sergeant at Arms.

The lawsuit, brought by Jawort, claims that Hall’s Montana Daily Gazette has libeled her by reporting an incident that never happened. The story, written by Hall, claims that while the Legislature debated a bill on transgender issues that Jawort was so confrontational in her role as a lobbyist that a lawmaker needed protection.

While both sides submitted affidavits to the court, only Hall’s unnamed sources seem to identify Jawort as the person at the center of the controversy.

However, Hall’s lawyer has invoked the media shield statute in Montana law, called the Montana Media Confidentiality Act, that protects journalist from having to reveal their sources.

“The Act is one of the strongest and broadest press shields in the nation and amounts to a discovery-proof, steel wall surrounding Montana media organizations like Gideon Knox,” the court filing said; Gideon Knox is the owner of the Montana Daily Gazette, and Hall is the leader of Gideon Knox.

The Montana Media Confidentiality Act
The Montana Media Confidentiality Act is found in Montana Code Annotated Section 26-1-902(1). It protects journalists from being compelled to reveal sources.

“Without a person’s consent, a person, including any newspaper, magazine, press association, news agency, news service, radio station, television station, or community antenna television service or any person connected with or employed by any of these for the purpose of gathering, writing, editing, or disseminating news, may not be examined as to or may not be required to disclose any information obtained or prepared or the source of that information in any legal proceeding if the information was gathered, received, or processed in the course of the person’s employment or business.”

However, in an interview with the Daily Montana, Constance Van Kley, counsel with Graybill, told the Daily Montanan that the names of the Hall’s sources are not as important as the veracity of what he reported.

“No one has said and no believes this is what happened,” Van Kley said.

She described the filing and legal maneuver as a “hail Mary” and said that Montana’s media shield law protects journalists so that they can report on newsworthy events.

“What is newsworthy about this article? It’s spurred on by nothing but an attack on an individual and her character,” said Van Kley.

Graybill added that the case isn’t about names or sources, rather “Did this incident that he reported happen or not?”

The filing by Monforton also reasserts the position that Jawort’s previous postings on social media have so badly discredited her, that she’s become a “libel-proof” defendant. That legal concept hinges on whether a person has been damaged or does damage to his or her reputation so badly that any negative publicity or press cannot substantially harm them.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.