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Newspaper wins confidentiality battle over most claims in Jewell suit

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Newspaper wins confidentiality battle over most claims in Jewell suit

  • A superior court judge in Georgia found that statements published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about former Olympic Park security guard Richard Jewell were not libelous.

June 2, 2004 — All but one of the statements published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about former Olympic Park security guard Richard Jewell are not libelous, a superior court judge in Georgia ruled yesterday, negating the need for the newspaper to disclose its confidential sources.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge John R. Mather held that the newspaper would not be compelled to reveal the sources reporters used for articles about an FBI investigation connecting Jewell with the 1996 bombing during the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Jewell, who has been subsequently cleared of any involvement in the bombing, claimed that the source of the information was necessary to prove his libel case against the newspaper.

The case has a long and tortured history. Jewell sued the Journal-Constitution in 1997 after it reported that he sought publicity for saving lives during the bombing, and that investigators thought he fit the profile of a lone terrorist. Federal authorities have since arrested and charged Eric Robert Rudolph with planting the bomb, which killed one person and wounded 111 others. Rudolph is currently awaiting trial.

In October 2001, the Georgia Court of Appeals dissolved a contempt order issued by Mather in 1999 after two Journal-Constitution reporters failed to reveal the identities of those who informed them that Jewell was a suspect in the bombing. The appeals court held that Mather had failed to properly balance Jewell’s need for the identities of the informants against the newspaper’s interest in protecting the confidentiality of its sources.

“To properly perform this balancing test in a libel case, the trial court must require the plaintiff to specifically identify each and every purported statement he asserts was libelous, determine whether the plaintiff can prove the statements were untrue, taking into account all the other available evidentiary sources, including the plaintiff’s own admissions, and determine whether the statements can be proven false through the use of other evidence, thus eliminating the plaintiff’s necessity for the requested discovery,” the appeals court instructed in its 2001 opinion.

The appellate court also held that Jewell was a public figure who must prove actual malice, defined as knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth of a statement.

Mather will next decide whether to grant the Journal-Constitution ‘s motion to dismiss Jewell’s libel case entirely. Jewell’s remaining libel claim involves a published statement that law enforcement authorities once believed Jewell made a 911 call warning of the bomb.

“We are pleased that the judge has resolved his concerns about the confidential sources issue so that he can now turn to our summary judgment motion, which has been pending since December 1998,” said Peter Canfield, attorney for the Journal-Constitution .

(Jewell v. Cox Enterprises; Media Counsel: Peter Canfield, Atlanta) KM

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