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Jewell deemed voluntary 'limited purpose public figure'

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  1. Libel and Privacy
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    NMU         GEORGIA         Libel         Oct 6, 1999    

Jewell deemed voluntary ‘limited purpose public figure’

  • An Atlanta trial court found Richard Jewell became a voluntary limited purpose public figure by using “his credibility and newfound publicity to relieve the anxiety of the public.”

In early October, a state trial court in Atlanta found security guard and one-time Centennial Olympic Park bombing suspect Richard Jewell to be a “voluntary limited purpose public figure” and refused to grant Jewell’s request for judgment in his favor in his libel suit against The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Jewell sued the newspaper in 1997 for libel based on articles reporting that, after he was credited with discovering the Olympic Park bomb and saving lives, he approached the news media and sought publicity for his actions. Jewell claims articles reporting that his prior record as a law enforcement officer had been erratic and that investigators believed he fit the profile of a lone bomber also were defamatory.

The court explained that just prior to his identification as a suspect in the bombing, Jewell “commanded the public’s attention because his actions were thought to have saved lives in the most public of events.” The court determined that once Jewell “voluntarily entered a public controversy” by talking to the press about the bombing and his role in the clearing of the park, he could “expect scrutiny regarding his background” and would have to accept the possibility of misstatements by the media.

Jewell’s role in the controversy was significant, the court found, because he “spoke repeatedly of the training which he and the others had received, commented on park safety, and encouraged the general public to return to the park.” Jewell used “his credibility and newfound publicity to relieve the anxiety of the public,” the court found.

Jewell, the court noted, participated in 11 interviews within the four days after the bombing, prior to being identified as a suspect.

The court declined to find that Jewell was a public official. But because he voluntarily entered the public controversy and became a “voluntary limited purpose public figure,” the court found that Jewell must prove the newspaper acted with actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth — to recover damages for defamation. If he were a private figure, Jewell would have only had to show that the newspaper was negligent to recover damages.

(Jewell v. Cox Enters., Inc.; Counsel: Peter Canfield, Atlanta)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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