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Name them, guilty or not In Jewell, Irvin cases, the news media took libel protection too far

HAD DALLAS Cowboys Michael Irvin and Erik Williams been accused of sexual assault prior to 1964, they undoubtedly would not have been so roughed up by the news media.

Ditto for Richard Jewell, who was once labeled the prime suspect in the bombing in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta.

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Irvin and Williams were falsely accused in December of sexual assault by a 23-year-old woman. The two Cowboys stars were then subjected to a media frenzy after KXAS-Channel 5 and Dallas police tossed their names out for public consumption.

This was especially unfortunate because it came so soon after the U.S. Justice Department had cleared Jewell of involvement in the park bombing.

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The names of Irvin, Williams and Jewell were tossed about by the news media although they had not been arrested or charged.

Last week, Jewell filed a lawsuit against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the college where he once worked, accusing them of libel. In December, Jewell reached a settlement with NBC over comments anchorman Tom Brokaw made on the air about Jewell shortly after the bombing. the Wall Street Journal reported the settlement was worth $500,000.

Such cases would not have happened when I was covering the police beat in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We were not permitted to use the name of a suspect unless that person had been formally charged with a crime or had confessed to the crime in the presence of a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter and a witness.

I recall the time that a district judge was being sought in connection with a hit-and-run accident. Even though he was a prominent official and had been named in a police offense report, we would not dare name him without a formal charge.

We wouldn't even identify him as a judge because it was felt this would subject all members of a small group, Tarrant County district judges, to suspicion.

News organizations were extremely cautious about using the names of criminal suspects because they feared being sued for libel, which is defaming the character or reputation of a person.

In the United States, truth has long been considered a defense to libel. But the truth is often hard to prove.

We would not use the name of a criminal suspect simply because he was named in an offense report or a search warrant because these documents often contained inaccurate information. However, there were things we could report with impunity: formal criminal charges, grand jury indictments, trial testimony and meetings of governmental bodies.

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But all of this began to change in 1964 because of a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case titled New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan.

L.B. Sullivan, an elected commissioner of the city of Montgomery, Ala., sued the Times and four black ministers who had taken out an ad in the newspaper in 1960. The ad recounted the violence that the civil-rights movement had encountered in the South.

Although Sullivan was not named in the advertisement, he contended that false statements about Montgomery police libeled him because he was responsible for that city's police department.

lTC Sullivan was originally awarded $500,000 in damages in an Alabama court. The Times appealed, and the case finally landed before the Supreme Court.

The court reversed the verdict and in the process revised the rules for libel by ruling that public officials could only collect damages for libel in cases involving "actual malice." The court said:

"The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with 'actual malice' - that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of ++ whether it was false or not."

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In 1967, the high court, in two more landmark cases, extended the Times rule to those people considered to be "public figures" - that is, to those in the public eye.

Both Irvin and Williams certainly fall into this category. Last week, media attorney Tom Williams told a group of journalists that he didn't think he would have any trouble proving that I am a public figure because of this column I freely write for public consumption.

Finally, in a 1977 case, the Supreme Court ruled that a private individual involved in matters of public interest also would have to prove malice to collect damages in a libel case.

After those rulings, the news media began taking more liberties when it came to naming criminal suspects. I fear that in some cases the media became reckless and put the public's desire to know ahead of an individual's right not to be defamed without good cause.

Personally, I don't think there is any evidence that any of those covering the recent allegations against Irvin and Williams acted with actual malice.

And although they undoubtedly were acting within the law in plastering the names of the two football stars across the airwaves and newspaper pages, I don't think it was the right thing to do.

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I recently asked Fort Worth Star-Telegram Executive Editor Jim Witt what this newspaper would have done if we had been the first to receive the information that Irvin and Williams had been named in an offense report filed by the Dallas Police Department.

He said we would have merely reported that two professional athletic stars were being investigated after being accused of sexual assault. "I don't think we would have even said they were Dallas Cowboys," Witt said.

But even if KXAS reporter Marty Griffin had not named the two in his initial broadcast - after Dallas police prepared an offense report naming the two - I'll bet that another journalist would have done so after reading the offense report, which was available to the news media.

After Jewell was freed of suspicion of being a bombing suspect, I asked readers at what point they think a crime suspect should be identified by the news media.

Fifty-one readers responded to the unscientific survey. One would have named the suspect on the basis of a tip from a police officer; one would identify a suspect named in a search warrant; 11 would wait until the person was arrested; 26 would await the filing of formal charges; seven would await a grand jury indictment; and five would not name a suspect until the person was convicted of a crime.

Many journalists say they would not identify a public figure accused of a crime until police had gathered enough evidence to file formal charges or to arrest a suspect. I've pretty much come to that point.

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In November, Lou Gelfan, reader representative for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, quoted Gary Gilson, executive director of the Minnesota News Council, as saying:

"Never identify a person until a charge is filed. Somebody has to take a moral leadership position not to take part in a stampede. What harm would be done by waiting until a person is charged? I would make exceptions when major public figures are arrested."

If we can't exercise greater moral leadership, I fear that one day greater restraints will be imposed on us.

Those Supreme Court justices who have made it easier to cover matters of public interest may one day make it more difficult because they have concluded that the media can't handle these freedoms in a responsible manner.

If that day arrives, dear colleagues, we will have only ourselves to blame.

Phil Record is ombudsman of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where this article first appeared.

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Pub Date: 2/02/97


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