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|NMU||MISSISSIPPI||Libel||May 28, 2002|
Newspaper columnist did not libel former sheriff
Mississippi newspaper columnist Bill Minor did not libel a former sheriff in a column that contained substantially true information about the sheriff's history of involvement in civil-rights incidents and a political scandal, the state Supreme Court ruled May 9.
The high court affirmed the lower court's decision to dismiss Rex P. Armistead's lawsuit against Minor, who writes a column called "Eyes on Mississippi" that is published in newspapers across the state. Minor also is a member of the steering committee for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Minor's column in April 1998 on Armistead was sparked by a story in The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal about Armistead's involvement as a paid investigator for the "Arkansas Project," an effort by American Spectator magazine to produce exposes about then-President Bill Clinton.
Minor's column recounted Armistead's activities dating to the 1960s. The column described Armistead's "odoriferous background in Mississippi, ranging all the way from head-bashing of black civil rights workers to concocting a bizarre homosexual scandal in an attempt to defeat a gubernatorial candidate."
Ample publications supported the gist of the information in Minor's column, the state Supreme Court ruled.
Armistead, a public figure, also failed to prove that Minor acted with actual malice, meaning that the columnist knew the published statements were false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth, the court ruled.
"While it may be evident that Minor does not hold Armistead in high regard, such feelings do not amount to actual malice," Justice James W. Smith Jr. wrote in the 8-0 decision. Justice C.R. "Chuck" McRae did not participate.
The ruling noted that the lower court abused its discretion in deciding that Armistead was libel-proof, meaning that his reputation was so bad that defamatory statements could not hurt him more. That was an issue for the jury to decide, the high court ruled. However, since the libel claim was defeated on other grounds, the case was properly dismissed, the court ruled.
(Armistead v. Minor; Media counsel: Luther T. Munford and Mark David Fijman, Phelps Dunbar LLP, Jackson, Miss.) -- MD