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EDITORIAL: Court must defend Nevada’s shield law

It would be a tragedy upon a tragedy if the horrific murder of Review-Journal reporter Jeff German resulted in the gutting of laws designed to promote the First Amendment.

On Wednesday, the Review-Journal is scheduled to appear before District Court Judge Michelle Leavitt seeking sanctions on the Metropolitan Police Department. The case involves the investigation of Mr. German’s murder last September. Metro searched Mr. German’s cellphone despite telling the newspaper it hadn’t. That’s an affront to Nevada’s shield law and the constitutional protections afforded to the press. Shield laws prevent the state from forcing journalists and newsgatherers from revealing confidential sources.

As part of their investigation, the police sought to search Mr. German’s cellphone and computers for information about the crime. That’s an understandable instinct, but it ignores the unique variable in this case. The law protects the confidential sources of journalists. It would be a truly perverse incentive if that protection disappeared after someone took the life of a journalist.

It’s essential to understand how shield laws benefit the public more broadly. Mr. German’s career exemplified that. He spent decades developing sources throughout the community. One of the reasons for Mr. German’s success was that people knew they could trust him to keep their identity a secret.

Imagine you see something illegal going on at your work. You want to blow the whistle. But what if the offender finds out that you exposed him? The more powerful the person who is committing the offense, the harder it would be to cross him. But it’s in the public’s interest to learn the truth. Shield laws solve this dilemma by allowing reporters to protect the identity of their sources.

Metro is well aware of this dynamic. Within days of Mr. German’s murder, Metro asked the newspaper for permission to search devices that contained his professional work. On Sept. 16, a Metro attorney emailed Review-Journal counsel that “no search has commenced” of his newsgathering materials. Days later, the newspaper went to court seeking to prevent such a search.

But a search warrant for former Clark County Public Administrator Robert Telles told a different story. Police said they honed in on Mr. Telles based partly on “legally obtained data from German’s phone.” The warrant was granted on Sept. 7. The Review-Journal didn’t obtain an unredacted copy until November. Metro told the court its lawyer’s email was a mistake. Come on.

Mr. German spent his career exposing corruption throughout the Las Vegas Valley. To further expose those who helped him do that would be a grave injustice. The court must sanction Metro.

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