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Judge bars media coverage of public records hearing about domestic violence incident at Reno city manager’s house

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Washoe County Second Judicial District Court Judge Kathleen Sigurdson on Tuesday barred Our Nevada Judges from covering a public records hearing in a lawsuit filed by This Is Reno. No reason was given by Sigurdson for denying media access to her courtroom.

“This is the most blatant disregard of the law I’ve ever seen,” said Alex Falconi with Our Nevada Judges, which films court proceedings around the state and publishes the hearings online.

Falconi, through his attorney Luke Busby, filed an emergency petition to the Nevada Supreme Court seeking to overrule Sigurdson’s ban on media coverage. Busby, who is also representing This Is Reno in the public records lawsuit against the county, said the media coverage denial would amount to “irreparable harm.”

“If this writ petition is not considered and granted prior to April 17, 2024, at 1:00 p.m., any opportunity to provide electronic coverage on the contents of the public proceeding will be irreversibly lost, especially due to the fact that the proceeding will not be recorded,” he wrote in the petition to the state court.

This Is Reno and Washoe County filed a stipulation to cancel the hearing, which was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. The case is about the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office denial of public records in an April 8, 2023 incident where law enforcement was dispatched to Reno City Manager Doug Thornley’s house. First published by Picon Press, both the City of Reno and Washoe County Sheriff’s Office denied most records about the case.

This Is Reno ordered the public records because of a number of reader requests for information about the case. Nevada’s Public Records Act mandates most government records are open to the public upon request. WCSO refused to provide any bodycam footage, and the police report was so heavily redacted it was difficult to determine what occurred at the incident other than no charges were filed.

“This case is a straightforward matter of significant public interest,” Busby wrote in the case. “The County put forward a list of people who are also seeking information about the domestic violence call made from City Manager Doug Thornley’s home. Those individuals include at least three journalists from two separate news outlets, a city council member, and a Washoe County Commissioner.”

The City of Reno destroyed the 911 call to Thornley’s residence, and the WCSO implied it did not have a copy of it.

“The County admits RPD, or someone at the City, destroyed the Thornley 911 call,” Busby wrote. “These efforts, combined, demonstrate a concerted effort to cover up this incident. Those with oversight of Thornley and [the Reno Police Department]—and the public—deserve to know whether laws and procedures were properly followed and handled by the agencies involved. To date, nearly a year later, this key point remains a secret.”

Deputy District Attorney Lindsay Lidell argued that Thornley deserves privacy and that release of records would be embarrassing and would amount to a “security risk” and a “chilling effect.” She accused This Is Reno of being “particularly litigious.”

“I understand the details of the April 2023 Thornley call for service are potentially gossip-worthy, but they are not subject to disclosure as public records,” she argued. She asked the court to dismiss the public records lawsuit.

This Is Reno countered that WCSO and RPD have in the past provided similar records—mostly unredacted—to citizens making public records requests, including 911 calls reporting domestic violence, but WCSO did not claim the same privacy interests it made for the city manager.

It’s not the first time local judges have prevented Falconi from videotaping court proceedings. 

“The Supreme Court created a general rule that camera access is presumptively to be allowed if the proceeding is open to the public,” Falconi told This Is Reno. “To overcome this presumption, a judge must cite with particularity the factors listed under [Supreme Court rules]. 

“Judge David Hardy committed this same violation in the past. Sparks Judge Kevin Higgins committed a similar violation; his denial was based on ignorance as to what a media request was, a pretext that, to this day, I find to be a pathetic excuse,” he added.

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.

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