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The Georgia Court of Appeals dealt a blow to Richard Jewell’s libel suit against The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday. The court unanimously upheld Fulton State Court Judge John R. Mather’s finding that Jewell is a limited-purpose public figure. It also vacated and remanded Mather’s order holding reporters Ron Martz and the late Kathy Scruggs in contempt for refusing to reveal the sources who informed them that Jewell was a suspect in the 1996 Olympic Park bombing. The court dismissed a second appeal from the newspaper, which contended that Mather should have ruled on motions for summary judgment and for judgment on the pleadings, which might have nullified the need for discovery. Atlanta Journal Constitution v. Jewell, Nos. A01A1564, A01A1566, (Ct. App. Ga. Oct. 10, 2001), Jewell v. Cox Enterprises, No. A01A1565 (Ct. App. Ga. Oct. 10, 2001). Georgia Press Association General Counsel David E. Hudson called the ruling “a great victory” for the newspaper. An opinion overturning Jewell’s status as a public figure, he says, “would have guaranteed a jury trial” at which Jewell only would have to prove negligence in the paper’s reporting. Upholding Mather’s contempt order forcing Martz and Scruggs to reveal their sources, he says, would have jeopardized reporters’ ability to gather news. The appeals court has strengthened the paper’s hand considerably, Hudson says. “It’s just unfortunate they’ve had to go through such trouble and expense to get there,” he says. After the blast at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park on July 27, 1996, Jewell, then a security guard at the park, received praise for discovering a bomb, evacuating the area, and notifying authorities. The blast killed two and injured more than 100. Later, law enforcement officers suspected Jewell, then cleared him of involvement in the bombing. Jewell filed suit in January 1997, accusing The Journal-Constitution of slipshod reporting and libel. Since then, the case record has expanded to more than 26,000 pages, but has yet to go to trial. Jewell’s lawyer, L. Lin Wood Jr., says the appeals court’s ruling “tramples on the rights of private individuals” to express their views in interviews with the media. Wood says he will ask the Georgia Supreme Court to grant certiorari in the case. The appeals court said that because Jewell granted interviews following the bombing, he injected himself into the debate on park security and therefore made himself a limited-purpose public figure. “This court has not given this man a fair chance to win his case,” Wood says. “Maybe he will find justice in another court.” JOHNSON’S OPINION Presiding Judge Edward H. Johnson wrote the opinion for the three-judge panel, which included Judges John H. Ruffin Jr. and John J. Ellington. Johnson acknowledged that media coverage of the criminal investigation caused Jewell “considerable anguish.” But that anguish, he wrote, was not permanent. “[T]hrough subsequent media coverage of the investigation, his role in these events has once again been depicted as the positive role it was originally believed to be,” Johnson wrote. Lawyers for both sides invoked the First Amendment during oral arguments before the appeals court panel July 12. Peter C. Canfield of Dow Lohnes & Albertson argued that The Journal-Constitution simply had exercised its First Amendment right to report the truth: that law enforcement considered Jewell a suspect in the bombing. Wood countered that his client had the right to talk to the press after his actions in the bombing, without making himself a public figure. Doing so, he argued, would have had a chilling effect on a person’s right to speak freely. Johnson wrote that the qualified reporter’s privilege under O.C.G.A. � 24-9-30 only allows reporters who are not parties in a libel action to protect their sources. However, he wrote, Judge Mather should have considered the rules of discovery under O.C.G.A. � 9-11-26(b)(1), under which a party only may obtain discovery “relevant to the subject matter involved in the pending action,” and which “appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.” The opinion essentially adopted Canfield’s argument from July in which he made the case that the identity of confidential sources is sensitive information that the discovery rules should protect — just as they do other kinds of sensitive information. “Even where a privilege is unavailable, there is a strong public policy favoring the protection of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources consistent with that favoring the protection of other kinds of information during discovery,” Johnson wrote. Canfield calls the opinion “a common sense ruling.” “What the court’s opinion does is really put the cart back behind the horse,” he says. The court mooted the portion of the case concerning Scruggs. She died in her sleep Sept. 2 at her home in Georgia’s Cherokee County. In upholding Mather’s ruling that Jewell is a limited-purpose public figure, Johnson wrote: “Whether he liked it or not, Jewell became a central figure in the specific public controversy with respect to which he was allegedly defamed: the controversy over park safety.” In the court’s ruling on the paper’s call to review Mather’s failure to rule on The Journal-Constitution‘s motions for summary judgment and judgment on the pleadings, Johnson wrote that Mather had not ruled on those motions. Hence there was no ruling the paper could appeal.

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