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Automatic gag on ethics complaints deemed unconstitutional

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Automatic gag on ethics complaints deemed unconstitutional07/15/96 NEVADA--A state law which gagged individuals who filed complaints against public officials was…

Automatic gag on ethics complaints deemed unconstitutional

07/15/96

NEVADA–A state law which gagged individuals who filed complaints against public officials was ruled unconstitutional in late June. A federal District Court judge in Reno found that enforcement of the law would have been an unconstitutional limit on individuals’ right to free speech.

The case arose after Ande Engleman, a freelance reporter and former executive director of the Nevada Press Association, filed a complaint in late April with the Nevada Ethics Commission. The complaint alleged that the Reno city manager improperly solicited donations from private groups for a two-day city council retreat to a lakeside resort in California.

Engleman then received a letter from the Ethics Commission in early June notifying her that third party complaints against public officials were confidential as soon as they were filed and the commission took jurisdiction over the matter. The letter also warned Engleman that if she made any of the information surrounding the matter public, the commission could impose sanctions including a financial penalty of up to $5,000.

Engleman filed a complaint for emergency injunctive and declaratory relief in mid-June. The judge found that sealing complaints and gagging the complainants was unconstitutional. The finding was not challenged by state Deputy Attorney General Louis Ling. Ling said the Commission would not contest the suit because the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) had previously held a similar law in Hawaii unconstitutional. (Engleman v. Morse; Media Counsel: Don Campbell, Las Vegas)