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EDITORIAL: Court mustn’t let state use reporter’s murder to erode press freedoms

Updated October 10, 2022 - 7:39 pm

Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German lived his life in devotion to press freedom. It would be a travesty if his murder helped undermine the vital safeguards that allow a free and unburdened press to function.

That is what is at stake Tuesday morning as the Review-Journal faces off in court with Clark County law enforcement agencies to prevent those entities from trampling a state law that grants journalists important protections during the news-gathering process.

Mr. German, 69, was stabbed to death last month outside his home. Las Vegas police arrested Robert Telles in the slaying. Telles served as the elected Clark County public administrator, overseeing an agency that attends to the estates of the deceased when a relative is unavailable. He had been unhappy with stories Mr. German wrote revealing turmoil in Telles’ office.

Mr. German’s murder is a senseless outrage, particularly for his family, friends and colleagues. It also highlights the vital role journalists play — and the risks they take — in promoting government accountability by holding public officials responsible when they stray from their obligation to serve the people.

These functions are so important to the health of a democratic republic that the Bill of Rights begins by prohibiting Congress from infringing upon five essential freedoms, including freedom of the press. Many states, Nevada among them, have added additional protections in the form of a shield law, which safeguards journalists from disclosing sources or information gathered during the execution of their professional duties.

Such protections are particularly important if the press is to properly carry out its civic watchdog function. A state that can compel journalists to reveal sources, for instance, also has the power to intimidate those sources into silence, making it more difficult for reporters to uncover malfeasance or wrongdoing.

These are not theoretic concerns. As the criminal case against Telles moves forward, both his defense team and law enforcement now seek access to information Mr. German had compiled on his cellphone and computers relating to the Telles investigation and any number of other stories and topics unrelated to the case in question. Such an intrusion would not only violate state law, it would have a chilling effect on all Nevada news organizations — as well as those across the country — and their ability to cultivate sources and keep the public informed.

Last week, a Clark County judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing the search of Mr. German’s phone and computers. On Tuesday, District Judge Susan Johnson will consider the Metropolitan Police Department’s effort — with the support of the public defender’s office and the district attorney — to quash that order. She will also take up the Review-Journal’s proposed compromise, which involves the appointment of an outside special master to review the devices and help determine what should and shouldn’t be released.

Telles indeed has a constitutional right to a fair trial. But the Review-Journal preventing his attorneys from embarking upon an amorphous fishing expedition by rifling without limit through information protected under Nevada law in no way infringes on the defendant’s ability to craft a defense. Likewise, police and prosecutors must operate under myriad legal and constitutional restrictions, the First Amendment and Nevada’s shield law among them.

Assurances from authorities that they won’t share the identities of Mr. German’s confidential sources — even sources within the very agencies conducting the searches of Mr. German’s devices — cannot be trusted. Would the lawyers in Tuesday morning’s arguments so readily surrender privileged attorney-client communications under a similar promise? Of course not.

Authorities have declared their desire to search Mr. German’s devices immediately — an action that would cause irreparable harm to the Review-Journal and Mr. German’s confidential sources. The restraining order must remain in effect until the court establishes a search protocol that honors the privilege of the shield law and protects Mr. German’s work product from damaging intrusion.

Thomas Jefferson is reputed to have said that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” and this sage observation has stood the test of time. Meting out justice in Mr. German’s death must not be a pretense to erode press freedoms and weaken the ability of journalists to promote the transparency and accountability necessary for a free state to flourish.

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