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Northern Nevada Website Editor Fights Order To Divulge Sources

A Northern Nevada website editor says he’ll go to jail before complying with a judge’s order to reveal his sources.

Sam Toll, editor of the online news site The Storey Teller, is battling a defamation lawsuit filed by Storey County Commissioner Lance Gilman. Toll wrote a series of critical articles about Gilman, including questioning whether he lived in the county.

“Many people in Storey County questioned the fact that he lives on the Mustang Ranch in double-wide trailer,” Toll said, “Interesting, the case isn’t about whether he lives at the Mustang Ranch or not. Mr. Gilman and his attorneys need to prove that when I wrote the piece I knew that I was lying, that I pushed it knowing it was a lie and that did so with malice.”

Gilman is one of the most powerful people in Storey County, population 4,000. Along with serving on the county commission, he developed the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, where Tesla and Switch have operations, and he owns the Mustang Ranch brothel.

Toll used confidential sources when he wrote the article about Gilman not living in the district he is representing on the commission.

During a deposition about the defamation lawsuit last year, Toll refused to give information about those sources to Gilman's attorneys.

Those attorneys then asked a judge to rule on whether Toll was protected under Nevada law.

In a recent ruling, a judge said Toll does not meet the standards to be covered by Nevada’s shield law. That law protects journalists from being forced to turn over notes and reveal sources.

Media law expert and UNR Professor Patrick File explained that the law was patterned after a similar law in California. 

“The law is meant to enhance the newsgathering process and foster the free flow of information," File said, "The way that it does that is it prevents courts or other judicial or official government proceedings from demanding or successfully demanding reporters or editors from news organizations hand over information about confidential sources or other unpublished information.”

The judge ruled that statute doesn't apply to Toll because he doesn't put ink to paper.

“It’s a pretty cramped interpretation of the letter of the law,” File said.

File explained that for years a journalist was defined by where he or she published but as broadcast journalism on radio and television became prevalent the interpretation expand and it has expanded again as digital journalism as expanded.

“Today, we define journalism functionally, and for a long time, we have done that,” File said.

Now, journalists are defined by what they do - gather, verify, analyze, opine and disseminate information important to the public interest rather than where that work appears.

Toll is appealing the decision to the Nevada Supreme Court. He said if he loses on appeal he still does not plan to reveal his sources because he owes it to them — and to future journalists.

“I took the information telling the people I would keep the knowledge of who was talking to me confidential," he said, "Frankly, what it boils down to is principal.”

He said revealing his sources would have a chilling effect on people who have information important to the public interest. Toll said that whistleblowers provide a crucial public service whether it's in Storey County or Washington, D.C.

“As a society, we would all lose,” he said.

Sam Toll, website editor, Storey Teller; Patrick File media law expert and professor, University of Nevada, Reno

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With deep experience in journalism, politics, and the nonprofit sector, news producer Doug Puppel has built strong connections statewide that benefit the Nevada Public Radio audience.