Newspaper again ordered to reveal source of Jewell disclosures
GEORGIA–The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in mid-March was once again ordered by state Judge John Mather in Atlanta to reveal the identities of confidential sources who supplied reporters information about former Centennial Olympic Park bombing suspect Richard Jewell. The judge ruled that the state shield law does not apply to journalists who are libel defendants.
Mather originally ordered the newspaper to reveal its confidential sources in April 1998 in response to discovery requests related to a libel suit Jewell brought in 1997. Jewell claims the newspaper damaged his reputation by falsely reporting that investigators believed he fit the profile of a “lone bomber” and by reporting that he was the primary suspect in the 1996 Olympic Park explosion.
Jewell, who worked as a security guard at Olympic Park, is seeking material that will identify the sources who provided information about the bombing investigation to Journal-Constitution reporters.
Mather declined to sanction the newspaper for not complying with the April 1998 order, but directed it to reveal its sources within 60 days. After 60 days, if the newspaper has not complied with the order and cannot show cause why a civil contempt order should not issue against it, the newspaper and its reporters face the possibility of fines or jail sentences.
Mather found that under Georgia precedent, the state shield law – – which establishes a qualified privilege for both confidential and non-confidential sources and information — has been interpreted to protect journalists only if they are not parties to the underlying litigation. Because the Journal-Constitution is the defendant in Jewell’s libel case, Mather found the shield law inapplicable. He also held that there was “likewise no support” for a state or federal constitutional privilege.
“This court cannot adopt an interpretation of the privilege which is not arguably supported in current law and would effectively insulate a defendant reporter from liability in a defamation action,” Mather wrote.
Mather also found that the identities of the newspaper’s confidential sources were relevant to Jewell’s libel claim, and that the subpoena was not unduly burdensome.
“Of all our freedoms,” Mather wrote, “that which is of central importance to our democracy is the autonomy enjoyed by the press under the First Amendment. … For good or ill, however, our press enjoys no greater constitutional freedom than any citizen.”
Jewell claims in his libel suit that the Journal-Constitution, which was the first news outlet to report that Jewell was the primary suspect in the bombing, damaged his reputation by falsely describing him as having an erratic work history in law enforcement and falsely reporting that he sought publicity after initially being given credit for finding the bomb and saving lives.
Jewell was never charged and has been cleared of any involvement with the Olympic Park bombing. (Jewell v. Cox Enters., Inc.; Media Counsel: Peter Canfield, Atlanta)