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Interview: New Law Cloaks NV Legislature In Secrecy

The Nevada Legislature is under scrutiny again for an 11th hour bill passed unanimously last session that makes all of its correspondence off limits. To learn more about the new statute, Reno Public Radio's Julia Ritchey sat down with Patrick File, a professor of media law at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Below are excerpts of their conversation or listen to the full interview.

The Associated Press was conducting a standard records request as part of Sunshine Week, which advocates for open government and transparency. Michelle Rindels, an AP reporter in Nevada, asked for the schedules and emails of Gov. Brian Sandoval and few top legislators.

For the most part, the governor’s office complied with the request, but the legislature flatly refused. The Legislative Counsel Bureau, which fields all open records requests, issued a 28-page letter explaining their rejection.

UNR’s Patrick File says their rational is based, in part, on a new Nevada law passed unanimously, without debate, on the last day of the 2015 legislative session.  

“They cited a new statute passed just in the last session [AB-496] that makes virtually all work product of the legislature not subject to open records requests and not subject to the public records law.”

He says the broader legal justification for this is something called “Legislative Privilege.”

“[It’s] a concept that’s basically intended to keep members of Parliament or members of Congress or state legislatures from intimidation or threats or punitive action from other branches of the government,” he says.

However, this argument — protecting legislators from other branches of the government by making their communications off limits to the public — is debatable.

“The public is generally right to assume that the work that their government does should be open to their inspection and open to public scrutiny,” he says.

“In this particular case, the public in Nevada shouldn’t necessarily be blamed for seeing this as somewhat of a suspicious or maybe even craven attempt to shield a lot of the stuff that the legislature does in the way that this law was passed,” says File.

Barry Smith, the head of the Nevada Press Association, agrees that the new law will have a chilling effect on the public’s ability to scrutinize who their legislators are talking to on a regular basis.

“Their [the Legislative Counsel Bureau] argument was that it codifies existing law, but I don’t think it does at all,” says Smith. “I think they threw a blanket over the legislature, saying ‘We’re only going to release what we want to release’ and they needed that AB-496 to back up their arguments.”

>Read the full response of the Legislative Counsel Bureau to Michelle Rindel’s AP request.

>Read Barry Smith of the Nevada Press Association’s write-up on the controversy and how he thinks it can be fixed.

Julia Ritchey is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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