Storey County Defamation Case To Consider Who Is a Journalist

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Image: Don Dike-Anukam

STORY UPDATE (Feb. 21, 2019): The hearing has been postponed due to weather. The Storey Teller posted the update today.

The Storey Teller, Storey County’s Online News Source, was sued in 2017 by brothel owner and TRI Center developer Lance Gilman for defamation. Gilman sought $15,000 in damages against Storey Teller Editor Sam Toll for alleged defamation because Toll’s statements, in part, “tend to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of the community, excite derogatory opinions about him, and hold him up to contempt.”

First District Court Judge James Wilson, however, dismissed last year seven of Gilman’s eight complaints against Toll under Nevada’s anti-SLAPP law. Anti-SLAPP (strategic litigation against public participation) laws are enacted to protect free speech from lawsuits that seek to silence criticism.

Wilson’s ruling might have made Territorial Enterprise writer Mark Twain, known for his creative exaggerations in the 1860s, smile from his grave.

“I’m just a guy with a keyboard. A guy who is not afraid of or beholden to the people who think they own this place.”

“Statements cannot form the basis of a defamation action if they cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual,” Wilson determined. “Rather the communication is rhetorical hyperbole, vigorous epithets, and lusty and imaginative expressions of contempt and language used in a loose, figurative sense. Such language will not support a defamation order.”

Patrick File, University of Nevada, Reno assistant professor of media law. Image: UNR.
Patrick File, University of Nevada, Reno
assistant professor of media law.
Image: UNR.

According to Toll, “Gilman sued (me) in December of 2017 after (I) published a series of articles critical of Gilman. During a deposition (I) refused to reveal sources of information contained in articles…based on the advice of (my) attorney, Luke Busby.

“Gilman’s attorney then filed a motion to have the court determine if (I) could enjoy the projection of Nevada’s Reporter Shield Law.”

Does the Shield Law apply to independent journalists?

The law protects journalists from revealing their sources and turning over notes for legal proceedings. It covers employees of media outlets.

But Toll is an independent online publisher, similar to ThisisReno and the hundreds of growing online news operations around the country that are filling in news deserts in markets decimated by corporate news cutbacks.

Toll ran last year for school board and said he intends to run for Storey County Commission next year. Nevada journalism professor Patrick File said that, historically, it is not uncommon for politicians to also be journalists, and vice versa. Consider Ben Franklin.

“If you go back to the founding era, one of the best ways to be a persuasive and influential politician was to support a newspaper and run a newspaper,” File said. “There’s a long history of that.”

File said that “the judge is interested in this question of whether Toll qualifies as a journalist, or whether the Storey Teller qualifies as a newspaper or periodical for purposes of claiming the Nevada shield law.”

Toll is a member of the Nevada Press Association. His case goes back to court on Friday, and File is serving as an expert witness.

“I’m just a guy with a keyboard,” Toll said. “A guy who is not afraid of or beholden to the people who think they own this place. Storey County Commissioner Lance Gilman considers this dangerous.”

CORRECTION: Toll has not been a Storey County Commissioner, as originally reported, but said he intends to run for a seat in 2020.

Bob Conrad
About Bob Conrad 1131 Articles
Bob Conrad is co-founder of ThisisReno. He manages ThisisReno as publisher and executive editor. He also works part time for the University of Nevada, Reno.