Critic of Reno air races safety files suit over ban
September 7, 2012
RENO — A longtime critic of safety procedures at the National Championship Air Races is suing organizers of the annual event in Reno to try to strike down their ban on his access to the competition where 11 people were killed in a crash near the grandstand a year ago.Mark S. Daniels, a former Army helicopter mechanic and air traffic controller, said in a civil complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Reno this week that he has a First Amendment right to attend the 49th annual races at Reno-Stead Airport Sept. 12-16.Daniels, 56, who considers himself a journalist and has written as a blogger most recently for the Silver State News Service, was one of the few people to publicly oppose continuing the full slate of the races this year in light of last year’s crash, which also injured 70 people.Daniels long has criticized CEO Michael Houghton and other Reno Air Racing Association board members for their heavy-handed management of the event. He stepped up his criticism over safety after a deadly crash in 2007.“I said back then it wasn’t a matter of if an accident was going to happen but when it was going to happen. I predicted spectators would be killed either in the grandstand or in the pits and it came true,” Daniels said this week, referring to last year’s crash.His civil complaint accuses the association, Houghton and others of retaliating against him and conspiring to violate his rights to free speech and free press “to prevent him from reporting safety violations and existing, extremely dangerous conditions on site.”Daniels said the bad blood with Houghton goes back about 10 years when he said Houghton instructed his “thugs” to kick him out of the event’s awards banquet. Houghton told AP that Daniels didn’t have a ticket, but Daniels said he did.Houghton said Daniels’ ban from the grounds is based on past threats he made to Houghton and others and has nothing to do with his public complaints. Daniels paid small fines after Reno police arrested him for trespassing in violation of the ban in 2004 and 2009. He was never arrested or charged for any threats.Houghton said that for the past seven or eight years RARA’s lawyers have sent Daniels a letter like the latest one dated Aug. 9 informing him that the association was exercising its “right to refuse individual access to property and events over which it has specified contractual rights.”As for freedom of the press, Houghton said: “We don’t regard him to be a journalist. Even if we did, he went over the bounds by threatening us.”Daniels acknowledged his website is inactive but said he continues to contribute articles and photos to other blogs. He said in his lawsuit he needs to be able to talk with racers about safety issues, including “the good and bad relationship that exists between the racers and event organizers” so that he can report to the public “while advocating for progressive change.”Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, said determining who qualifies as a journalist in modern times is a difficult question with “no really good answer.”“Generally for me, you need to work for some kind of newsgathering organization. An individual who’s merely blogging, doesn’t necessarily fit that definition,” Smith said.Members of the state association must meet some minimum requirements such as following accepted journalistic practices, publishing regularly and having some kind of business office with an address, he said.