Independent news publisher, Sam Toll of Virginia City, received mostly a victory in his defamation case filed against him by developer and brothel owner Lance Gilman.
The Nevada Supreme Court determined that First Judicial District Judge James Wilson erred when it ordered Toll to reveal his story sources to consider defamation claims levied by Gilman against Toll.
Wilson ruled in March that Toll did not have media shield privileges, which protect journalists from having to reveal their sources, because he was not a member of the Nevada Press Association.
Toll’s attorney appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court. He received support from the Nevada Press Association, attorney Maggie McLetchie, the Society for Professional Journalists and the Online News Association, among others.
“This is a win for digital journalism in Nevada,” said Patrick File, a journalism professor at the University of Nevada.
The Nevada judges said that the district court did not consider the evolution of media.
“The district court held that Toll was not protected by [Nevada law] because he was not associated with a newspaper, periodical, press association, or radio or television station when he made the alleged defamatory statements on his blog,” they wrote. “In particular, the district court relied on the notion that because Toll’s blog is not physically printed, it cannot be considered a newspaper.”
Wilson’s March ruling took Nevada media laws at face value and determined that since Toll was not a press association member when he first launched his website, source material for stories about Gilman’s residence were not protected sources.
That determination potentially put online news sources, such as This Is Reno, that are not members of the Nevada Press Association, in a legal quagmire. The Nevada Supreme Court, however, took a broader view.
“We disagree with the court’s reasoning,” the state court justices said. “[Toll’s reporting] qualifies him as a reporter.
“[Nevada’s media shield statute] has not been amended since 1975. While the drafters of NRS 49.275 knew what a newspaper was, they likely did not contemplate it taking a digital form,” they added. “Just because a newspaper can exist online, it does not mean it ceases to be a paper.”
However, the court also ruled that Toll’s sources may be disclosed to some degree.
“The district court did not arbitrarily and capriciously exercise its discretion by ordering limited discovery so that Gilman could ascertain whether Toll made his statements with actual malice,” they said.
Malice is one component of determining whether libel or defamation occurred.
“Thus,” the judges continued, “limited discovery may be appropriate.”
Toll called the ruling a major victory.
“In a time when it is harder and more dangerous to be a journalist, I am encouraged by Nevada’s Supreme Court’s ruling,” he said. “The ruling confirms what I believe everyone takes for granted in today’s digital age; online journalists are real journalists and deserve the protection of Reporter Shield Laws.
“I am humbled to have been a part of protecting the rights of those who investigate news and print their work online.”
The court ordered the First Judicial Court to conduct more proceedings to determine whether The Storey Teller qualifies for media shield protections.
The case is, therefore, still in play.
This story is developing and may be updated.