Guy Farmer: Press freedom on the Comstock
Dear Judge (James) Wilson: No matter what Lance Gilman says, Sam Toll is a journalist. That said, let’s examine press freedom, or the lack thereof, in Northern Nevada.
I’m writing about this hot-button issue because I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to online journalist Sam Toll in Gold Hill last weekend. As someone who has worked in and around the news business for more than 50 years, I know a journalist when I see one, and especially when I talk to one. Although Toll may be feisty and irreverent on occasion, I think he’s a full-fledged journalist and therefore protected by Nevada’s Shield Law, which allows journalists to keep their sources confidential.
Let’s start at the beginning. Storey County Commissioner Lance Gilman, an outspoken brothel owner and real estate developer who’s the public face of Storey County’s booming Tahoe Reno Industrial Center (TRIC), where several high-tech companies and the world famous Mustang Ranch are located, sued Toll for defamation for opinion pieces the online journalist wrote for his Storey Teller news blog. Carson City District Judge James Wilson dismissed eight of Gilman’s nine allegations against Toll but retained a charge challenging Gilman’s Storey County residency. Gilman, who says he lives on the Mustang Ranch property and votes on land use issues as a member of the County Commission.
As an aside, I asked Gilman about possible conflicts of interest at a recent Carson Chamber of Commerce “Soup’s On” luncheon, and he dodged my question by offering to sell me a TRIC land parcel and issuing me a business license right there on his iPhone. How convenient. Which reinforces my opinion real estate developers shouldn’t double as public officials.
As Daniel Rothberg wrote in Jon Ralston’s Nevada Independent, a successful online newspaper, the Gilman vs. Toll story is “a complicated tale fueled by the heated public feuds and factions that have existed in Storey County since the discovery of the Comstock Lode.” Is it ever, because this 21st century story reminds me of the 1960s and ’70s when Storey County government was controlled by colorful brothel owner Joe Conforte, who usually had the local sheriff and district attorney on his payroll and boasted his very own state senator, the unforgettable James “Slats” Slattery, who lived at the Mapes Hotel in Reno.
In his mostly favorable opinion for Toll, Judge Wilson questioned whether Toll is a journalist, citing the state’s 1975 Shield Law, which defines journalists as “reporters or editorial employees of any newspaper, periodical, press association, or radio or TV station.” Toll has appealed Wilson’s decision to the Nevada Supreme Court. A potential expert witness, my longtime friend Warren Lerude, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor and publisher of the Reno Gazette-Journal and strong advocate for the First Amendment and Nevada’s Shield Law, believes Toll is a journalist.
“In my view the Shield Law covers … online newspapers,” Lerude told me. “(Toll) is a reporter because of how he gathers news, and his relationship to the public. His style doesn’t matter.” Amen.
So the Nevada Supreme Court will decide whether Toll is a journalist. I think he is and so do most veteran journalists I know including Dennis Myers of the Reno News & Review, who wrote the state Attorney General’s Office in 2014 drafted language that would have extended the journalists’ shield to “any medium of expression that exists or shall exist in the future.” That legal definition is consistent with the First Amendment, which clearly states “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Case closed.
Guy W. Farmer has been writing for the Appeal since 1996.