(CN) - The Nevada Supreme Court ruled Thursday that operating as a digital-only news outlet is not grounds for disqualification from the Silver State’s robust shield laws.
While some watching the case closely were hoping for a more sweeping ruling that included the blog involved in the case at hand, the ruling offers comfort for several digital-only news enterprises that the laws governing a journalists right to protect the confidentiality of their sources and unpublished information will be upheld.
“While we decline to resolve whether or not a blog falls under the definition of a newspaper, 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 on behalf of the unanimous seven-judge court.
Had the lower court ruling stood, several digital-only news outlets operating in the Silver State, for instance the Nevada Independent, could have faced subpoenas seeking their sources or unpublished information in a state that already determined such activities were outside of the government’s purview.
“The ruling means shield laws do extend to digital journalism as journalism and news media continues to evolve,” said Patrick File, professor of media law at the University of Nevada, Reno. “But the ruling certainly did not make any grandiose proclamations or attempt to define journalism once and for all.”
Instead, the Nevada Supreme Court left it for the lower court to decide whether the Storey Teller, a blog created in 2016 by resident Sam Toll, should qualify as a newspaper and therefore be afforded the same protections as more traditional news outlets.
Toll began the blog to provide a counter narrative to the regular press in Virginia City and Storey County — the third-least populous county in Nevada that covers an arid stretch of Nevada on the western flank of the Great Basin just east of Carson City and Reno. Initially, the blog focused on offering an alternative view of a sheriff running for reelection in 2016, but then shifted to cover potential conflicts of interest involving Storey County Commissioner Lance Gilman, owner of the Mustang Ranch brothel.
Toll used the Storey Teller to disseminate articles about how many of the county policies enacted by Gilman and his cohorts benefited Gilman’s various business interests in and around Storey County. He also published a story that said Gilman was manufacturing an address within Storey County so he could serve on the commission, but he actually lived in Reno, which is in adjacent Washoe County.
Gilman sued Toll for defamation.
During the deposition phase of the trial, Gilman attempted to ascertain which sources Toll relied upon in making his accusations regarding his residency, but Toll invoked Nevada’s shield law, which gives journalists the right to refuse to reveal sources to state courts and other public bodies.
Shield laws, which have been passed in various forms in 40 states, are designed to protect the role of the press by granting reporters the right to refuse to testify in courts and before grand juries and legislative bodies regarding their sources for information obtained during the news gathering and dissemination process.
“Nevada has one of the strongest shield laws in the country,” File said.
But Gilman filed a motion to compel, arguing Toll was not really a journalist, but a mere blogger.
Nevada First Judicial District Judge James Wilson ultimately sided with Gilman, but in his ruling said that a lack of printed product coupled with the fact that Toll did not belong to the Nevada Press Association meant the Storey Teller could not be legally defined as a newspaper.
Toll appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court, with several digital-only outlets watching the case closely.
The court said a lack of a printed product was not grounds for disqualifying the Storey Teller as a newspaper.
“We consider technological advancements as well and arrive at the conclusion that one can 'print' in more than one way,” Gibbons wrote on behalf of the majority.
But the higher court left it to Judge Wilson to make the ultimate determination about whether the Storey Teller is a newspaper that deserves the protections shield laws confer.
Richard Karpel, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, said Toll and his sources should be afforded the same protections extended to any other journalist engaged in the news-gathering process in the Silver State.
“If they are practicing journalism, they should be covered,” Karpel said.