LAS VEGAS (AP) — A blogger’s legal fight with a brothel owner who sits on a local lawmaking board has led to a Nevada Supreme Court ruling extending journalism shield law protection to online reporters as well as newspaper, television and radio news gatherers.
Sam Toll said Friday from his home in the old northern Nevada mining town of Gold Hill that he would rather be known as an online journalist than a blogger, and he’s proud of the unanimous ruling issued Thursday by the seven-member court.
“From the beginning, this has been an effort to shut me up and kill the spotlight I’m casting on things here in Storey County,” he said.
Nevada was already among 30 U.S. states and the District of Columbia with laws shielding reporters from having to reveal confidential sources.
The court rejected a state court judge's finding that because Toll wasn't a member of a press association and his blog wasn't in printed form, the state law didn't apply to him.
“We conclude that a blog should not be disqualified from the news shield statute ... merely on the basis that the blog is digital rather than appearing in an ink-printed, physical form,” Chief Justice Mark Gibbons wrote for the court.
Toll called the ruling “a huge win for Nevada journalists." Richard Karpel, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, called it “the only logical conclusion” the court could reach.
“Reporters are reporters,” Karpel said, “regardless of whether their work is published on ink and paper or pixel and screen.”
The decision overturned Carson City District Court Judge James Wilson's order that Toll turn over notes and identify sources for a defamation lawsuit filed against him by Lance Gilman, the wealthy owner of the Mustang Ranch brothel and an elected Storey County commissioner.
Toll reported that Gilman doesn’t really live in the county where he serves on the lawmaking board. Gilman denies the allegations.
In a statement through spokesman Mike Draper, Gilman called the court ruling “unfortunate" and accused Toll of biased journalism.
“In order to be ruled a journalist, there are several requirements that must be met and neither Mr. Toll nor his publication meet those requirements,” the statement said.
The defamation case is not over. The high court sent it back to Wilson for more hearings and a decision whether Toll’s blog, The Storey Teller, qualifies for protection under the state news shield law.
Toll’s attorney, John Marshall, said he’s confident he'll win what he characterized as that last 10% of the case.
The state high court proceedings drew friend-of-the-court briefs from advocates including the Nevada Press Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, News Media Alliance, Online Press Association, Media Institute, Society of Professional Journalists and Reporters Without Borders.
The case also drew interest from Barbara Ellestad, a former local water board member in the Nevada resort town of Mesquite who says she spent $27,000 of her own money in a months-long fight in 2013 and 2014 to quash subpoenas issued by attorneys seeking sources for her self-published online reports about criminal cases and civil lawsuits related to the water authority.
Unlike Wilson in Carson City, judges in state court in Las Vegas ruled that Ellestad did not have to comply.
“It’s easy for people with power to put us through these legal battles,” said Ellestad, now a freelance writer for Battle Born Media’s weekly Mesquite Local News. “Our problem is we can’t always afford to fight. We can’t depend on our newspaper owners to cover us. I make $50 an article.”
Ellestad recently received backing from the Reporters Committee and donated time by an attorney in Las Vegas for a new fight against a demand that she testify under oath about her work on stories about a golf course developer.
“They are only doing this to me to harass me, intimidate me and cost me money — ultimately to get me to shut up,” Ellestad said. “The problem is, a lot of people would stop writing and stop reporting. We need people to write these stories and report.”