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NEVADA VIEWS: First Amendment prevails in case of slain reporters electronic devices

Following the Sept. 2, 2022, death of Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German, the Metropolitan Police Department began an investigation. In yet another example of Metro’s exemplary work in such cases, a suspect was in custody a mere five days later. That suspect was an elected official, Clark County Public Administrator Robert Telles.

Telles had been the subject of German’s investigative reporting three months earlier. German’s reports chronicled accusations of employee bullying, a hostile work environment and an inappropriate relationship with a co-worker. After German’s stories appeared, Telles lost his June 2022 re-election bid in the Democratic primary.

Following German’s death, Metro and the district attorney’s office sought to examine German’s personal notes and devices as the case was built against Telles. However, the newspaper’s concern was that such notes, in the hands of detectives and prosecutors, may have revealed German’s confidential sources, which are vital tools for journalists. Nevada has a shield law protecting journalists from disclosing sources, which helps reporters develop news stories that ensure authenticity.

At the request of the newspaper, a judge barred authorities from searching German’s personal devices. Attorneys for the RJ suggested instead that an independent team examine German’s tools. Metro appealed that ruling to the Nevada Supreme Court. On Oct. 5, the justices ruled that Metro cannot examine German’s devices. Instead, the court is allowing a former U.S. magistrate judge and a former Clark County district attorney to examine the reporter’s devices.

My perspective in this yearlong, judicial tug-of-war comes from being both a former law enforcement officer and having worked within and with the news media for more than 30 years.

My nine years in law enforcement were in Jefferson County, Colorado, as a deputy sheriff for the largest populated county in Colorado. I was active in homicide scenes, autopsies, gathering of evidence, presentation of the case to the prosecutors and testimony in court. After assignments in three divisions, I was appointed the first public information officer (PIO), reporting directly to the longtime sheriff. The print and electronic media in Denver made for an extremely competitive environment, much the same as Las Vegas.

My 40 years of news media experience includes TV news production in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Denver. Fourteen of those years were in corporate communications management with Coors Brewing Co. at their headquarters in Golden, Colorado.

Given these varied vocations, where do I come down in the judicial battle between the RJ and Metro regarding confidentiality of a reporter’s notes?

For the year since German’s death, I have sided with the need for newspapers (and their electronic counterparts) to be able to protect their sources. Such confidentiality is critical to the reporters’ stories.

I have seen firsthand the ability of talented law enforcement personnel from many agencies as they gather evidence, name a suspect and prepare a superb case for prosecution. Metro, skilled in its homicide investigations, quickly arrested the suspect in German’s homicide. This was also due in no small part to the reporter instincts of German’s fellow journalists at the RJ.

The Nevada Supreme Court has wisely supported the RJ’s position on the shield law as well as the make-up of a panel to examine German’s journalistic tools. The confidentiality of sources must be protected if we are to benefit from future journalistic endeavors.

Let us remember Thomas Jefferson’s words (written from France) to America’s Continental Congress in 1787 on the eve of his host country’s French Revolution: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Don Shook is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas.

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