Toll v. Wilson

Decision Date05 December 2019
Docket NumberNo. 78333,78333
Parties Sam TOLL, Petitioner, v. The Honorable James E. WILSON, District Judge; and the First Judicial District Court of the State of Nevada, in and for the County of Storey, Respondents, and Lance Gilman, Real Party in Interest.
CourtNevada Supreme Court

John L. Marshall and Luke A. Busby, Ltd., Reno, for Petitioner.

Flangas Dalacas Law Group and Gus W. Flangas and Jessica K. Peterson, Las Vegas, for Real Party in Interest.

McLetchie Law and Margaret A. McLetchie, Las Vegas, for Amici Curiae The Nevada Press Association, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, The News Media Alliance, The Online News Association, The Media Institute, The Society of Professional Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders.

BEFORE THE COURT EN BANC.

OPINION

By the Court, GIBBONS, C.J.:

Almost fifty years ago, the Nevada Legislature passed the news shield statute, NRS 49.275. The current version of the statute protects journalists who are associated with newspapers, periodicals, press associations, and radio and television programs from mandatory disclosure of confidential sources. Since the passage of the statute, the news media has undergone immense changes. Previously, most news outlets disseminated news via physically printed newspapers and magazines or by radio and television broadcasts. Now, in addition to these sources, independent bloggers disseminate news through personal websites. In light of this modernization of the news media, we are asked to determine whether digital media falls within the protections of NRS 49.275. We hold that it does, but we do not address the specific question of whether or not petitioner Sam Toll qualifies for such protection as a blogger. Therefore, we grant the writ petition in part, so that the district court can conduct further proceedings in light of our holding and reconsider whether Toll’s blog falls within the protection of the news shield statute. Additionally, we deny the petition in part by holding that the district court did not act arbitrarily or capriciously when it granted the motion for limited discovery.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Toll runs an online blog that reports on current events in Virginia City, Nevada. Initially, this blog, thestoreyteller.online (The Storey Teller ), focused on the then-pending recall election of Sheriff Gerald Antinoro. Toll expressed a counter-narrative to local news sources, which he felt were publishing stories that were critical of Antinoro. After the recall election, Toll continued publishing The Storey Teller. In addition to other current events, Toll took an interest in Storey County Commissioner Lance Gilman. Toll wrote several articles that were critical of Gilman and posted them on The Storey Teller. Specifically, Toll wrote and posted articles that alleged Gilman did not live in Storey County. In response to these articles, Gilman filed suit, alleging defamation per se against Toll.

After some litigation, Toll filed a special motion to dismiss Gilman’s action under the anti-SLAPP statute, NRS 41.660, together with a sworn declaration, claiming that his statements constituted a good faith communication in furtherance of the right to free speech on an issue of public concern. Gilman filed an opposition to this motion together with an affidavit arguing that even if the statements were good faith communications, the action should not be dismissed because he, in turn, could demonstrate with prima facie evidence a probability of prevailing on his defamation claim. The district court held that there was a potentially viable claim under the anti-SLAPP statute. According to the court, Gilman made a prima facie case for a probability of success on the merits as to the falsity of the residency statements and their damaging nature, but he failed to make such a showing for actual malice, which is required to prevail on a defamation claim against a public figure. The district court granted Gilman’s motion for limited discovery on whether Toll had actual malice when making these statements. The discovery was limited to information that would help discern whether Toll knew that the statements involving Gilman’s residency were false or whether he acted with a high degree of awareness that they were likely false.

Once the limited discovery began, Gilman deposed Toll. During the course of the deposition, Gilman asked, among other things, why Toll believed that Gilman did not live in Storey County. Toll answered that he looked into the zoning of the Mustang Ranch, where Gilman claims to live, and determined that Gilman living there would violate zoning laws. Further, Toll stated that Gilman living in a trailer behind the Mustang Ranch was illogical, given Gilman’s wealth. Toll said he asked people whether Gilman lived on the Mustang Ranch property and they told him he did not. Toll stated his sources told him that Gilman would leave the Mustang Ranch and head to Reno every night at 8:00 p.m. Another source allegedly told Toll that Gilman kept his possessions at a different property, where he truly lives. When Gilman asked who these sources were, Toll I invoked the news shield statute under NRS 49.275 and refused to provide the identity of his sources. The deposition abruptly ended shortly thereafter.

Gilman filed a motion to compel Toll to reveal his sources with the district court, arguing that the news shield statute does not apply to bloggers. The district court agreed and granted Gilman’s motion to compel. The district court held while Toll is a reporter, he did not belong to a press association at the time of his comments. The court further held that Toll’s blog did not qualify as a newspaper because it is not printed in physical form and therefore the news shield statute did not afford him any protection. Toll filed a petition for a writ of prohibition or mandamus, challenging that decision as well as the order allowing limited discovery.

DISCUSSION

"When the district court acts without or in excess of its jurisdiction, a writ of prohibition may issue to curb the extrajurisdictional act." Las Vegas Sands Corp. v. Eighth Judicial Dist. Court, 130 Nev. 118, 122, 319 P.3d 618, 621 (2014). Therefore, even though discovery issues are traditionally subject to the district court’s discretion and unreviewable by a writ petition, this court will intervene when the district court issues an order requiring disclosure of privileged information.1 Id. We exercise our discretion to review this writ petition because it involves an issue of first impression in need of clarification, and addressing it will promote judicial economy in the proceeding below. See, e.g., Corp. of the Presiding Bishop, LDS v. Seventh Judicial Dist Court , 132 Nev. 67, 70, 366 P.3d 1117, 1119 (2016) (providing that this court may consider writ petitions presenting narrow legal issues concerning issues of significant public policy and that will promote judicial economy).

The district court erred by granting Gilman's motion to compel

The district court held that Toll was not protected by NRS 49.275 because he was not associated with a newspaper, periodical, press association, or radio or television station when he made the alleged defamatory statements on his blog. In particular, the district court relied on the notion that because Toll’s blog is not physically printed, it cannot be considered a newspaper. We disagree with the district court’s reasoning.

We review questions of statutory construction de novo. Tam v. Eighth Judicial Dist. Court , 131 Nev. 792, 799, 358 P.3d 234, 240 (2015). "When interpreting a statute, we resolve any doubt as to legislative intent in favor of what is reasonable, as against what is unreasonable." Desert Valley Water Co. v. State, 104 Nev. 718, 720, 766 P.2d 886, 886 (1988). "If the plain meaning of a statute is clear on its face, then [this court] will not go beyond the language of the statute to determine its meaning." Beazer Homes Nev., Inc. v. Eighth Judicial Dist Court, 120 Nev. 575, 579-80, 97 P.3d 1132, 1135 (2004) (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). In Desert Valley, this court reinforced the notion that "[t]he words of the statute should be construed in light of the policy and spirit of the law, and the interpretation made should avoid absurd results." 104 Nev. at 720, 766 P.2d at 887. Applying each of these canons to NRS 49.275, we arrive at the same conclusion—the district court ruled incorrectly.

NRS 49.275 reads, in relevant part, as follows:

No reporter, former reporter or editorial employee of any newspaper, periodical or press association or employee of any radio or television station may be required to disclose any published or unpublished information obtained or prepared by such person in such person’s professional capacity in gathering, receiving or processing information for communication to the public, or the source of any information procured or obtained by such person, in any legal proceedings, trial or investigation ....

In trying to ascertain the plain meaning of the statute, the district court attempted to define each word’s literal meaning. The first relevant term in this statute is "reporter." The district court found that Toll was a reporter under this statute, and we agree. The district court defined reporter as "one that reports; one who reports news events; a commentator." Reporter, Webster’s Third New Int’l Dictionary (2002). Toll reports various public events, opinions, and current news in Virginia City. This qualifies him as a reporter.

The statute also requires that, in order to be protected, the reporter must work for a "newspaper."2 Because "newspaper" was not defined by NRS 49.275, the district court relied on the definition of newspaper in other statutes as well as in a dictionary. When examining statutory definitions, the district court found that in order to constitute a newspaper, the media source must be "printed."3 This was consistent with the dictionary...

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6 cases
  • Canarelli v. Eighth Judicial Dist. Court of State
    • United States
    • Nevada Supreme Court
    • May 28, 2020
    ...without or in excess of its jurisdiction, a writ of prohibition may issue to curb the extrajurisdictional act." Toll v. Wilson, 135 Nev. 430, 432, 453 P.3d 1215, 1217 (2019) (internal quotation marks omitted). "Therefore, even though discovery issues are traditionally subject to the distric......
  • Willard v. Berry-Hinckley Indus.
    • United States
    • Nevada Supreme Court
    • August 6, 2020
    ...language of NRCP 60(b) does not distinguish between relief from a "final judgment, order, or proceeding." See Toll v. Wilson, 135 Nev. 430, 433, 453 P.3d 1215, 1218 (2019) (explaining that we give effect to a statute's plain meaning when interpreting an unambiguous statute). Furthermore, ou......
  • GEICO Gen. Ins. Co. v. Eighth Judicial Dist. Court of Nev.
    • United States
    • Nevada Supreme Court
    • October 18, 2021
    ...or in excess of its jurisdiction, a writ of prohibition may issue to curb the extrajurisdictional act.") (quoting Toll v. Wilson, 135 Nev. 430, 432, 453 P.3d 1215, 1217 (2019) ). And because the district court had no discretion to act outside its jurisdiction, the district court also had a ......
  • Bulen v. Lauer, 81854
    • United States
    • Nevada Supreme Court
    • April 29, 2022
    ... ... See NRS 49.275 (explaining that news reporters ... cannot be required to disclose their sources); Toll v ... Wilson, 135 Nev. 430, 435, 453 P.3d 1215, 1219 (2019) ... (holding that an online blog is not excluded from the news ... ...
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