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Late one night in 1999, a Crisp County, Ga., man navigated his way to a Yahoo message board and typed that an Albany waste management executive was a “thief” and a “crook.” Bruce Mathis, known that night as “duelly41,” was upset about the operation of a controversial recycling plant in his rural county, but his Internet insults have caused a more personal problem: a $1 million libel suit he is on the verge of losing. Mathis may get help from the Georgia Supreme Court, which last month agreed to hear his appeal of lower court decisions holding that he libeled Thomas C. “Chris” Cannon, a vice president of Waste Industries Inc. A subsidiary of the Raleigh, N.C.-based company, TransWaste Services Inc., hauls garbage to the recycling facility in Crisp County. The scope of the justices’ review of the case is wide and has piqued the interest of media and libel lawyers. In an April 17 announcement, the court said it was particularly concerned with whether the Georgia Court of Appeals erred in affirming the trial court’s grant of summary judgment for Cannon. That included, the court added, “without limitation — whether a private individual must show actual malice by clear and convincing evidence before punitive damages can be recovered from a private individual speaking on a matter of public concern.” SEVERAL QUESTIONS POSED The court’s “without limitation” review suggests the justices could address several other interesting libel law questions posed by the case. Those questions include whether Internet publishers can take refuge in Georgia laws that protect from punitive damages newspapers and broadcast companies that retract their libelous statements, and who may be considered a public figure. This matter grew out of a dispute over a $70 million recycling plant of the Crisp County Solid Waste Management Authority. According to Mathis’ brief, he “is a member of a very vocal group of concerned local citizens that oppose the waste of tax money and pollution of his county’s land, water and air” by the recycling plant. The brief says that the authority dumps 550 tons per day of other counties’ garbage in a local landfill, and that overweight TransWaste trucks destroy local roads. Around 11 p.m. on Nov. 4, 1999, Mathis went to the Yahoo message board about Waste Industries Inc., a site visited by investors, employees and stock analysts. In shorthand typical on the Web, Mathis typed, “stop the trash flow cannon we would love u for it — our county not a dumping ground and sorry u and lt governor are mad about it — but that is not going to float in crisp county — so get out now you thief.” At 11:27, Mathis added a second message, titled “cannon a crook????,” adding “explain to us why u got fired from the calton company please????” At 11:52, Mathis sent a third message, “cannon a crook,” in which he wrote, “if u deal with cannon u a crook too!!!!!!!” Cannon’s lawyer, Robert C. Norman Jr. of Macon, Ga.’s Jones, Cork & Miller said Lt. Gov. Mark F. Taylor has nothing to do with the matter. Taylor has connections to the recycling center, however. A 1999 article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution quotes him confirming that he helped the recycling plant replace trash sorters hired off welfare with free labor from state prisoners. Taylor said he merely arranged a meeting for local representatives and did not know that inmates were replacing welfare workers, according to a spokesman. Taylor had no comment on the libel suit because he’s not a party. Cannon sued Mathis in Crisp County Superior Court, claiming Mathis’ statements were untrue and constituted libel per se because they suggested Cannon committed a crime and because they were intended to hurt Cannon’s business interests. Cannon, who by affidavit denied being a thief or having been fired by the Carlton Company, a former employer, asked for unspecified compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages. JUDGE: MATHIS COMMITTED LIBEL In February 2001, Judge T. Christopher Hughes agreed that Mathis committed libel per se, noting “The record is clear that none of the rumors and innuendo upon which Defendant based his comments provide any support or justification for them.” Cannon v. Mathis, No. 99V-503 (Crisp Super. Feb. 13, 2001). Damages would be decided at trial. Last November, a Georgia Court of Appeals panel of Chief Judge G. Alan Blackburn, joined by Presiding Judge Marion T. Pope Jr. and Judge Charles B. Mikell Jr., affirmed Hughes’ ruling. Blackburn wrote for the panel that Mathis committed libel per se; that, despite evidence Cannon had attended closed meetings of the waste management authority, he was a private figure “involuntarily drawn into the controversy” of the recycling plant; and that Cannon’s failure to demand a retraction did not protect Mathis from punitive damages. Mathis v. Cannon, 252 Ga. App. 282 (2001). In granting certiorari, the state supreme court said it was particularly interested whether a private plaintiff must prove actual malice to recover punitive damages, referring to a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision on the subject, Gertz. V. Welch, 418 U.S. 323. Cannon’s and Mathis’ lawyers disagreed over the meaning of the splintered decision in Gertz. Mathis’ lawyer, James W. Hurt of Cordele, Ga.’s Hurt and Associates, argued in his petition for certiorari that since matters of public concern were involved in this case, it’s Cannon’s burden to prove Mathis knew his insults were false or that he acted with reckless disregard. Cannon’s lawyer, Norman, argued that Gertz held that libel defendants who defame a private figure “may not claim the benefit of the ‘actual malice’ standard for liability on the basis that the libel involved matters of public interest or concern.” Libel and media lawyers not involved in the case are particularly interested in the public figure and retraction issues addressed by the appeals court. COMPARISON TO ‘JEWELL’ CASE Public figures have a higher burden of proof than private figures in libel cases, making that issue a hard-fought point. For example, former security guard Richard Jewell has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse rulings by the Georgia appeals court that he was a public figure in press coverage of the Olympic bombing story. If the rulings are upheld, Jewell can’t win his libel case against the Journal-Constitution unless he proves the newspaper acted with malice when it reported he was a bombing suspect. Jewell since has been cleared by the Justice Department of any involvement in the bombing. L. Lin Wood Jr., Jewell’s lawyer, said he was concerned the state supreme court, which refused to review Atlanta Journal-Constitution v. Jewell, 251 Ga. 808 (2001) had put the Mathis decision in jeopardy. “This court got it right,” Wood said of the appeals judges, pointing out how Blackburn had noted that Cannon had been involuntarily drawn into the dispute as a result of doing his job for the waste transport company. Jewell claimed that he was involuntarily drawn into the bombing case only because he happened to find the bomb in the course of his job. Wood had cited the Mathis decision in asking the state high court to take the Jewell case, arguing that the two decisions created a split in the law. On the other hand, Hurt, Mathis’ lawyer, pointed to the Jewell decision to argue that Cannon was a public figure. Noting that Jewell, who granted one photo shoot and 10 interviews, was found to be a public figure, Hurt argued that Cannon, who he said attended executive sessions of the waste management authority and helped sell the concept of the plant to the public, should be one, too. INTERNET APPLICATIONS The retraction statute issue has drawn interest as well. The Georgia Court of Appeals said the Internet was too different from newspapers or broadcasts to be covered by either statutes, which say that plaintiffs cannot collect punitive damages if the libel publisher retracts the offending statements. Blackburn wrote that because “the audience in a chat room is in a constant state of flux,” the remedy envisioned by the Georgia retraction laws did not apply. Douglas M. Isenberg, an Atlanta attorney who runs GigaLaw.com, a site about Internet law, viewed it differently. “The effect of the retraction can be greater on the Internet than in traditional media,” he argued, because the offending words can be actually excised from the message board. Plus, he added, because readers who come to a message board frequently return, the retraction would reach a greater percentage of the readers who saw the libel in the first place. James C. Rawls, who represents media companies for Atlanta-based Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy, noted that the appeals court viewed the retraction statutes strictly. “I think the Georgia Supreme Court could disagree and give it a broader scope,” Rawls said.

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