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


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.

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

Bob Conrad
Bob Conradhttp://thisisreno.com
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. He is also a part time instructor at UNR and sits on the boards of the Nevada Press Association and Nevada Open Government Coalition.