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Judge: Online News Doesn’t Qualify For Journalism Privilege Unless A Member of The Nevada Press Association

By Bob Conrad
Virginia City sign
Virginia City sign
Image: Don Dike-Anukam

Nevada shield laws don’t protect online-only news sources unless the websites are members of the Nevada Press Association. That’s the view of First Judicial District Judge James Wilson, who determined yesterday that Sam Toll, editor of an online news site, must reveal his story sources to developer and brothel owner, Lance Gilman, whom Toll has criticized.

Wilson mostly sided with Toll and his website, The Storey Teller, in his legal fight against claims of defamation by Gilman. He dismissed most of Gilman’s charges.

The remaining point, whether Toll and his site are the same type of news as TV, radio, and newspapers in order to protect sources from legal disclosure, was decided in Gilman’s favor. Read the ruling below.

Wilson said that “because Toll does not print the Storey Teller, the Storey Teller is not a newspaper, and therefore the news media privilege is not available to Toll under the ‘reporter of a newspaper’ provision of (Nevada law).”

Specifically, the date in which Toll became a member of the Nevada Press Association was crucial in Wilson’s determination.

“The point is, the Nevada Press Association recognizes a number of publications as newspapers, but the Storey Teller is not one of them.”

“Because Toll was not a reporter for a newspaper or press association before August of 2017 he was not covered by the news media privilege before August of 2017, and therefore, the motion to compel must be granted as to any source of information obtained or procured by Toll before August of 2017,” Wilson wrote.

Toll started publishing in February of 2017.

It is only because Toll was a member of the Nevada Press Association that protects him, Wilson said. Before August 2017, however, Toll can’t grant confidentiality to sources because he was not a press association member.

The Nevada Press Association does not have a specific membership category for online-only news sources, such as ThisisReno, The Nevada Current, Nevada Independent, Sparks News Today, and many others. These sites fall under a “specialized publications” category which also includes magazines.

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.

UNR Media Law Professor Patrick File called the ruling troubling.

“There’s the spirit of the law and the letter law,” he said. “(The judge) determined that a newspaper is something that’s printed. There are a lot of independent journalists who don’t publish in print that I think would be alarmed to learn they are not covered by the Nevada shield law.

“They functionally do nothing differently from journalists of a newspaper or periodical. The ruling is not consistent with the spirit of the law to protect journalists.”

Nevada law defines “news media” as pertaining to a “reporter, former reporter, or editorial employee of any newspaper, periodical or press association or employee of any radio or television station.” Only those types of journalists qualify for journalism privilege, according to Wilson.

“The Court takes judicial notice that all (Nevada Press Association) publications are printed,” Wilson determined. “The website also contains information concerning ‘non-daily newspapers.’ The Court is not familiar with the publications listed as non-daily newspapers.

“The point is, the Nevada Press Association recognizes a number of publications as newspapers, but the Storey Teller is not one of them.”

Online news sources that are not members of the state press association are, therefore, left in the dark. Print news has been dramatically downsizing and disappearing by the day, while social media and websites are becoming more common news sources.

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Wilson said that former Nevada Press Association Executive Director Barry Smith distinguished “between daily and weekly news publications on the one hand and online news services, magazines and others, on the other hand.”

“Professional organizations make it very clear that they do not intend membership in their organization to give legal protections to its members,” File said. “This is as troubling to the press association as it is to independent journalists.”

Toll was ordered to reveal the sources of his of stories about Gilman prior to August 2017 by April 12, 2019.

Toll’s attorney, Luke Busby, called the ruling unfortunate.

While we respect Judge Wilson, we fundamentally disagree that an online journalist should be compelled to reveal their sources because they publish news articles in an online newspaper instead of traditional print newspaper.  Such a ruling undermines the protection of fundamental Constitutional principles of freedom of speech and of the press and stifles the free flow of information that is essential for any free society to exist. 

CORRECTION: Judge Wilson is with the First Judicial District, which covers Storey County, not a Storey County judge as originally reported.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include a statement from Toll’s attorney.

Read the Ruling



Kevin Koelling March 10, 2019 - 6:46 am

The rights embodied in the First Amendment are not granted by the government. Self-evident truth tells us they belong to each person, they are unalienable, they are necessary to liberty, and they are not subject to definition, interpretation, or limitation by the government.

Dave Morgan March 9, 2019 - 10:08 pm

Good journalism is a lot like other quality products on the market. You know it when you read it, watch it on TV or listen on the radio. And that should include the internet. In fact the internet has become a strategically important source of news because of it’s immediacy. It ranks right up there with radio, and to a lessor extent television. Internet reporters break in any time they want whether high impact news or the release of school lunch menus. As for membership in the Nevada Press Association, membership should be granted when an internet outlet complies with accepted standards of journalistic proficiency. Review by a panel of journalistic “peers” seems appropriate if there’s any questions of competency or whether there is adequate adherence to ethical and/or legal standards. A review of a list of a journalist’s archived news stories should reveal the true level of professionalism of an applicant seeking membership in the press association.

Dave Morgan March 9, 2019 - 10:37 pm

Another not so minor point. The judge determined that an internet news site is not a printed publication, therefore it may not apply for membership in the association. I would ask, what are those communicative symbols on a computer screen if not printed words? Just because the printed words arrive via the internet, are the words substantially different than words printed on paper? I would submit that they’re both the same. In fact the term “paperless” is, these days, in such common use as to to suggest that someday we’ll all be reading the news on a variety of platforms – none of which include refined tree remnants.

Sierra Wells March 7, 2019 - 11:25 pm

Freedom of speech and the press does NOT require membership in any association, professional or otherwise! In fact, this is EXACTLY what the First Amendment was created for – so the government itself cannot require such a membership!

John Louis Lassen Perry March 7, 2019 - 8:07 pm

It’s interesting, for a number of reasons. I suppose it can be seen as approaching journalism in a way that would be considered normal for some other professions; Lawyers are not allowed to practice unless members of the State Bar Association, and specialist doctors are generally members of Specialist Boards who give “Board Certification”, Real Estate agents are mostly members of Boards of Realtors, and these organizations supposedly provide some private, professionally determined standards that these associations claim to insist upon for membership. Should there be an equivalent type of certification for journalists? I’m not sure most journalists would agree, but to rely on some private, professionally determined standard is certainly one way of passing the ball.

Sam Toll March 6, 2019 - 9:14 pm

It is ironic that this decision is happening on the eve of Newspaper Day at the Legislature (Monday, March 11th) and Sunshine week (all of next week). The Nevada Press Association will undoubtedly be talking about this when they meet with legislators and the Governor next week.

Bob Conrad
Bob Conrad March 7, 2019 - 8:47 am

It’s also ironic that all of the news coverage about your situation has been in online news sources!

Dale Tyson March 6, 2019 - 2:30 pm

Typical of the Judicial system. No common sense prevails. This Judge is living in the horse and buggy age. How could you possibly reach the conclusion that an online journalist is not a journalist with all the protections of any other journalist. What will thus judge rule when there is no print media left and everthing is online?

Elaine Hoem March 6, 2019 - 10:26 am

I agree – this is troubling. What is This is Reno going to do to follow up on this?

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