Sam Dehne is sort of like a toothache, at least for Reno city officials.
They tend to ignore him, hoping he'll go away. But he continues to be a pain and, eventually, festers into a major problem.
The Reno City Council can ignore Dehne if it wants, but it is the Nevada Ethics Commission's job to listen to people like Dehne. When he comes to the commission to complain the mayor has a conflict of interest, it's the commission's job to check it out.
Well, the Ethics Commission gets tired of listening to Dehne, too. So three years ago it told him to go away. Worse yet, it ordered him to stop filing "frivolous" complaints.
And worst of all, it fined him $5,000 when he went ahead and filed complaints anyway.
Last week, Magistrate Judge Valerie Cooke recommended a federal district judge side with Dehne and the American Civil Liberties Union in their lawsuit against the Ethics Commission.
"If the Legislature wishes to regulate speech critical of public officials, such statutes must incorporate the 'actual malice' standard," Cooke wrote. "If the Legislature wishes to trod on First Amendment ground and regulate such speech, it must do so with the utmost specificity and clarity."
The standard she cites says public officials are fair game to criticism - even criticism that turns out to be false - unless the criticism is made with the knowledge it was false, or a reckless disregard for whether it was true. It's a very tough standard to meet, but it is a foundation of our belief in free speech when it comes to people who hold the public's trust.
What good is an Ethics Commission with the power to punish people its members believe have become too much of a pain? The effect is an Ethics Commission who believes it has a responsibility to protect public officials, rather than investigate complaints against them.