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EDITORIAL: No fishing expeditions on late reporter’s devices

Updated September 29, 2022 - 8:19 am

The horrific murder of a reporter in the line of duty brings home the importance of the First Amendment. The judicial system must not use this tragedy to undermine press freedom.

Review-Journal reporter Jeff German was stabbed to death outside his home on Sept. 2. He had recently written reports highlighting dysfunction in the Clark County public administrator’s office. Days after Mr. German’s killing, Metro police arrested Robert Telles, the elected official who runs the office. He awaits his day in court.

As part of the investigation, police seized four computers, a hard drive and a cellphone from Mr. German’s home. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys now seek to search those devices for information that could be related to the crime.

Yet allowing such blanket fishing expeditions would be an egregious affront to the First Amendment and Nevada’s shield law, which prohibits the compelled disclosure of journalistic materials. If the state has the authority to force journalists to reveal sources and details of the news-gathering process, it essentially enjoys the power to neuter the oversight function of a free press. Nevada law explicitly covers both published and unpublished information and bestows an absolute privilege from disclosure.

In this specific case, Mr. German had worked in the trenches for more than four decades. His devices likely contain unfinished work product, interviews and information that could reveal confidential sources dating back decades, some in the very agencies that now seek access to his computers and phone. Unlimited disclosure of this sensitive information to the authorities could jeopardize the Review-Journal’s ability to gather vital news moving forward and would weaken journalistic protections for all of Nevada’s news-gathering organizations.

Rather than allow prosecutors and the defense team to rummage through Mr. German’s devices, the Review-Journal has asked the Justice Court currently overseeing this case to issue a protective order preventing such intrusions. In return, the court should create a mechanism that would include an outside special master to determine, in conjunction with the newspaper, what should remain confidential. Any decisions would, of course, be subject to judicial review if disagreements arise.

The Review-Journal seeks not to hinder the prosecution of a murder suspect nor to abridge the constitutional rights of the accused. We stand firm in the pursuit of justice in Mr. German’s senseless death. We mean only to ensure that the process recognizes the unique and important issues at stake regarding freedom of the press, a cornerstone of our democratic republic.

A previous version of the editorial had an incorrect date of the stabbing. Mr. German was found on Sept. 3.

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