By Thomas Mitchell
Unlike too many jobs in this country there is no such thing as a licensed journalist, but a Carson City judge has found such in the penumbra of Nevada’s press shield law.
Normally those in the press don’t seek any privilege not accorded any other citizen, but by the very nature of the job — showing up at fires and car crashes, attending public meetings, poking into nooks and crannies of government and society, asking questions and quoting people — there needed to be a means to keep the press independent and not be dragged into court hearings or depositions every other week.
That’s the purpose behind the state press shield law. It prohibits giving the third-degree to the Fourth Estate. Otherwise, there would be considerable disincentive for people to talk to reporters, because reporters could be forced to testify about them or reveal their identities.
The law says, “No reporter, former reporter or editorial employee of any newspaper, periodical or press association or employee of any radio or television station may be required to disclose any published or unpublished information obtained or prepared by such person in such person’s professional capacity in gathering, receiving or processing information for communication to the public, or the source of any information procured or obtained by such person, in any legal proceeding …”
The devil apparently is in the details.
Earlier this month District Court Judge James Wilson Jr. ordered Sam Toll, creator of The Storey Teller blog, to disclose his sources for a story about Storey County Commissioner and brothel owner Lance Gilman, who is suing Toll for defamation. Toll reported that sources told him the commissioner does not actually live in his district.
Toll wrote in a recent op-ed for the Las Vegas newspaper, “Gilman, one of the wealthiest men in Northern Nevada, insists he lives in a double-wide trailer behind the swimming pool at the Mustang Ranch brothel rather than the home he owns in Washoe Valley. Evidence and interviews I conducted suggest otherwise. In order to be a Storey County commissioner, you must reside in the district you represent.”
The judge concluded Toll is a reporter, but he failed to “provide facts, legal authority, or argument that the Storey Teller is a periodical …” Hair splitting. The law says periodical, which is a journal appearing periodically.
Instead of a press, a blogger uses a computer. It can be argued that Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack” was America’s first blog — self-written, self-printed, self-promoted. Print on paper or print in the ether. It is a distinction without a difference.
The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press was extended to radio and television without hesitation.
The judge further concluded Toll is not a reporter for a newspaper and did not join the Nevada Press Association until August 2017 and thus must reveal sources obtained prior to then.
Toll is not a reporter of or for the Press Association. He is a member. It is not a licensing body.
The state Supreme Court has recognized the shield law’s important function for the citizenry.
Justice Myron Leavitt opined in a case in 2000 in which a plaintiff tried to force a Las Vegas newspaper reporter to reveal his sources: “Nevada’s news shield statute serves an important public interest and provides absolute protection against compelled disclosure to ensure that through the press, the public is able to make informed political, social and economic decisions.”
Clark County judges have twice interpreted the shield law differently. In 2014 two judges ruled that the Mesquite Citizen Journal and its reporter, “although an online only news media source,” were protected by the shield law from being forced to reveal communications and records related to a series of stories about the local water district. In 2016 a judge denied demands to review a film maker’s unpublished notes and video interviews with a witness in a criminal case, ruling the press privilege also extended to the film maker.
Despite those rulings, Judge Wilson granted Gilman’s motion to compel Toll to reveal sources of information prior to August 2017 and gave the parties until April 12 for discovery to be completed.
For his part, Toll has said he is willing to be jailed before he will reveal sources. “Integrity is the most precious currency we have as journalists. Without it, the public would not entrust us with the information we need to help protect society from wrongdoers,” Toll wrote.
Let’s hope this current case is appealed and results in a similar outcome to that of the Mesquite Citizen Journal and the film maker.