If nothing else, the legal assault mounted against journalist Dana Gentry was notable for its audaciousness.
Under scrutiny by Gentry’s trademark take-no-prisoners reporting, lawyers for Aspen Financial Services and its chief, Jeff Guinn, son of the late former Gov. Kenny Guinn, accused Gentry of blatant conflicts of interest. Lawyers contended her stories were motivated by personal relationships and special favors performed by a legal rival of Aspen’s. And they issued a subpoena to uncover information that would back up their allegations.
Gentry fought back, aided by one of the best media lawyers in Las Vegas, Don Campbell. (By way of disclosure, Campbell has represented the Review-Journal, and Las Vegas CityLife when I was that newspaper’s editor.)
Last week, Gentry won. And in the process, she helped affirm a bedrock principle of state law: Journalists are protected from subpoenas seeking to pry into the newsgathering process.
A nearly unanimous Nevada Supreme Court ruled Aspen’s subpoena was barred by the Nevada Shield Law, one of the nation’s strongest. That law says simply and clearly that no reporter may be required to disclose any published or unpublished information gathered in the course of reporting stories. The state Supreme Court had opined in a 2000 case that “the statute ‘confers upon journalists an absolute privilege from disclosure of their sources and information in any proceeding’ in order ‘to enhance the newsgathering process and foster the free flow of information encouraged by the First Amendment.’” (Supreme Court Chief Justice Kristina Pickering recused herself from ruling on the case.)
The court made quick work of Aspen’s risible contention that it was seeking personal information related to Gentry as an individual, outside the newsgathering process. “Thus, it appears from the face of the subpoena that, when read in the context of Aspen’s claims, Aspen has requested the information sought in order to affirm its suspicions about Gentry’s motivation for producing news stories,” the court wrote. “In other words, although Aspen claims that it is not seeking Gentry’s sources because it already knows who those sources are, the circumstances of this case demonstrate that Aspen actually is effectively seeking to confirm the identity of Gentry’s sources.”
The judicial slap-down was a Thanksgiving gift to Nevada’s journalists, who otherwise would have been vulnerable to an all-too-easy form of extortion. Any person or company that found itself under journalistic scrutiny could simply have made outrageous, false and unsupported allegations of conflicts and issued subpoenas in an attempt to prove the same, all the while seeking to uncover sources of information. It would have swiftly and permanently chilled journalistic inquiry, and done great violence to the public good. Gentry’s fight prevented that harm, and every Nevada journalist owes her and Campbell a huge debt of gratitude for it. (That’s also why a host of media organizations — including the Review-Journal — supported Gentry in the case.)
Gentry’s legal victory stands in stark relief to the conduct of her former employers at the Las Vegas Sun, however. After years spent pursuing the story, editors there ultimately told her she could no longer cover Aspen, because the allegations the company lodged created a conflict. (It turns out there was a conflict, but not one involving Gentry: Aspen attorney John Bailey also had as a client Sun Editor and Publisher Brian Greenspun.) The Sun’s capitulation achieved Aspen’s desired intent, getting a dogged reporter off its case. It ultimately led to Gentry’s resigning her job at the newspaper. She’s continued to work at KSNV Channel 3, where she’s still covering Aspen in her role as executive producer of “Ralston Reports with Jon Ralston.”
With that, this sad chapter of legal abuse is over, and an important right is reaffirmed. That’s something for which we can all be thankful.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.