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Libel and Slander - Richard Jewell And The Olympic Park Bombing

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The strange ordeal of Richard Jewell grew out of the 1996 Summer Olympics bombing. One of thousands of security guards hired for the Atlanta games, Jewell discovered a suspicious knapsack containing a bomb on July 27, 1996. Before it exploded, he helped lead an evacuation that limited casualties to two dead and more than one hundred wounded. His heroism was widely praised. But within three days, celebrity turned into notoriety as the FBI had made him a primary suspect.

Suspicious of the 11 interviews Jewell granted following the bombing, the FBI theorized that he might have planted the bomb in order to be seen as a hero. This theory was promptly leaked to the press, which made it a cause célébre. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an extra edition on July 30, with a headline that read "FBI Suspects 'Hero' May Have Planted Bomb." The allegations mounted: Jewell had reportedly sought publicity for his heroism, while persons at Piedmont College, his former employer, were said to have made allegations to the FBI about his character and conduct. On NBC's nightly news program, Tom Brokaw stated that the FBI "probably" had enough evidence to arrest and try Jewell.

The investigation lasted three months. During this time Jewell became the target of two lawsuits by bombing survivors, which were later dismissed. He maintained his innocence and tried to clear his name by pointing out that he had not approached the news media seeking attention, a fact which was quickly confirmed. Only on October 26, 1996, did the FBI finally clear him as a suspect. He appeared at a press conference where he declared that he had spent 88 days living in fear. Nearly a year later, after initially refusing, Attorney General JANET RENO formally apologized to Jewell.

After being cleared in the fall of 1996, Jewell sued or threatened suit against several media companies for DEFAMATION. They included ABC, NBC, CNN, the New York Post, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, and a local Georgia radio station. Initially, he was successful. In December 1996, NBC negotiated a settlement with Jewell for a reported $500,000. CNN and ABC settled, too, as did Piedmont College, which Jewell had sued for allegedly supplying false information.

The most controversial lawsuit was filed in January 1997 against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and its parent company, Cox Enterprises Inc. Although truth is the key defense in a defamation case and Jewell was a suspect in the bombing, the LIBEL action was based on more than just a statement of his status as a suspect. Listing 19 allegedly libelous headlines and excerpts from articles, the suit claimed that the newspaper libeled him "in a series of false and defamatory articles that portrayed him as an individual with a bizarre employment history and an aberrant personality who was likely guilty" (Jewell v. Cox Enterprises Inc.).

But early on, an unusual ruling went against the plaintiff. Fulton County state court judge John R. Mather ruled on October 5, 1999, that Jewell was a "public figure" for purposes of his legal burden in the defamation case. Mather determined that Jewell made himself a public figure through his extensive media interviews following the bombing.

Unexpected and far-reaching, the ruling put a huge obstacle before the plaintiff. As the U.S. Supreme Court made clear in its oft-cited 1964 ruling in NEW YORK TIMES V. SULLIVAN, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d. 686 (1964), there is a distinction in defamation cases between private individuals and public figures. Private individuals have the easier task. As a private individual, Jewell would simply need to prove that the newspaper acted with NEGLIGENCE or carelessness in reporting information that was false and defamatory in content. But in order for a public figure to prevail, the plaintiff must prove "actual malice" on the part of the media defendants. Meeting the test for actual malice requires showing that the defendants knew that the reported information was false or had a reckless disregard for the truth.

Faced with meeting this significantly higher BURDEN OF PROOF, Jewell appealed the ruling unsuccessfully. In October 2001, the state Court of Appeals upheld the lower court, Atlanta Journal-Constitution v. Jewell, 555 S.E.2d 175 (Ga. Ct. App. 2001), and a year later appeals were turned down by both the Supreme Court of Georgia and the U.S. Supreme Court. As the lawsuit moved toward trial in 2003, Lin Wood, his attorney, warned that the decision to hold Jewell a public figure "threatens the reputations of any private citizen who is discussed by a member of the media." (The Associated Press. October 7, 2002. "Supreme Court Sends Several First Amendment Cases Packing.") The newspaper's attorney Peter Canfield observed that Jewell had already admitted to being the focus of the FBI investigation about which the paper had reported.

FURTHER READINGS

Calvert, Clay, and Robert D. Richards. 2002. "A Pyrrhic Press Victory: Why Holding Richard Jewell as a Public Figure Is Wrong and Harms Journalism." The Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Review (April 2).

"Court Upholds Ruling that Jewell Was Public Figure." 2001. Associated Press (October 11).

"Georgia High Court Won't Hear Jewell Appeal." 2002. Associated Press (February 12).

Noe, Denise. 2003. "The Olympics Bombed." Court TV's Crime Library. Available online at <www.crimelibrary.com/terrorists_spies/terrorists/eric_rudolph/2.html?sect=22> (accessed July 15, 2003).

"Supreme Court Sends Several First Amendment Cases Packing." 2002. Associated Press (October 7).

CROSS-REFERENCES

Public Figure; Terrorism.

Libel and Slander - Further Readings [next] [back] Libel and Slander - The Public Figure Doctrine: An Unworkable Concept?

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