For decades Nevada’s state and local government employees have used their political power to gain legal and economic privileges over ordinary taxpayers.
Now they’re leveraging that same clout to seek unconstitutional restrictions on what you might say about them in writing.
Senate Bill 150 would do just that. It was passed and sent to the Assembly Wednesday.
The issue goes back to the 1999 Legislature. That was when, at the request of the Nevada Highway Patrol, the Assembly judiciary committee introduced AB 304. It was aimed at a genuine problem: false and expensive-to-investigate complaints filed against peace officers by arrested lawbreakers.
Yet—as police representatives from Las Vegas and Reno pointed out—the initial draft of the bill had multiple difficulties, including a ham-handed indifference to the First Amendment. The law enforcement witnesses were joined by groups as dissimilar as Nevada Concerned Citizens and the American Civil Liberties Union in suggesting intelligent and superior alternatives to the bill’s wording.
Eight days later, however, the judiciary committee approved a motion by Assemblywoman Barbara Buckley to indefinitely postpone action on the legislation. The vote was lopsided: 10 to 4.
Three weeks after that, however, the committee did a 180—voting by the very same margin to reconsider the bill. The first witness, a representative of the Nevada Conference of Police and Sheriffs, was emphatically clear about what had happened: The law enforcement group had responded to the “indefinite postponement” by soliciting “support” from members and “other state peace officers” and had “received a great deal of response.”
The duly chastened judiciary committee listened to Buckley and other members reiterate their concerns over AB 304’s language, and then, without addressing those concerns, approved the bill. The Senate soon followed suit.
Just 18 months later the resulting law, NRS 199.325, was used by the Reno Police Department to arrest and throw in jail for 14 hours a man who had written Reno Mayor Jeff Griffin, complaining about two Reno police officers.
According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, in August 2000 police had been called to a Home Depot store over an argument between Spanish Springs handyman Robert Eakins and two employees. At issue was the damage Eakins said his truck had sustained when a store employee ran into it with a forklift.
In his letter to Griffin, Eakins said the officers had told store employees not to worry because the handyman couldn’t prove anything. Then the police forced him to leave on threat of jail.
Griffin gave Eakins’ letter to the police, who construed the letter as an official complaint under NRS 199.325. Police officers jailed Eakins on suspicion of knowingly making a false accusation of police officer misconduct.
But by June 2002, when U.S. District Judge David W. Hagen finally ruled against state attorneys defending the 1999 law, Home Depot had paid Eakins $1,440 for his damaged truck. Also, the City of Reno had paid the handyman $38,150, to settle a lawsuit.
Hagen found that the 1999 law passed by state legislators had infringed citizen First Amendment rights. Because there are other ways that state and local jurisdictions can deal with false complaints, he wrote, the extra burden that lawmakers had placed on written speech about police officers was unjustified.
What was that burden? Eakins’ lawyer, Terri Keyser-Cooper, had argued—as had a minority of Nevada’s 1999 lawmakers—that the effect of the law was to chill free speech by discouraging people from criticizing police, since it was the police who got to decide if people were lying.
Hagen agreed, writing, “It is … realistic to conclude that the statute might have the effect of deterring legitimate complaints against peace officers.”
Fast forward to 2005 and the amazingly dunderheaded “solution” to the problem now offered by the Nevada State Senate. Still ignoring the intelligent alternatives offered by Las Vegas and Reno police officers and others in 1999, senators voted to expand the legislative assault on First Amendment rights! SB 150 would extend the unconstitutional burdens placed on speech about police officers to speech about any public employee!
Senators—and the public employee union lobbyists twisting arms in the shadows—hung their hats on Hagen’s observation that the bill’s burden on speech was suspiciously narrow—dealing only with speech about police misconduct.
But presenting that as a justification for assaulting speech about all government employees is entirely specious.
The ACLU is correct: The Nevada Legislature is still seeking to carve out a special exemption from criticism for a privileged class: government employees.
Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.