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Lawyers representing a biographer of Otis Redding will ask a court to dismiss a $15 million libel suit brought against their client on grounds that the book is protected by Georgia’s Anti-SLAPP statute. Anti-SLAPP, or the “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation,” law protects citizens from suits filed to silence speech about matters of “public interest or concern.” The state’s General Assembly passed the law in 1996. O.C.G.A. � 9-11-11.1. At issue in this case is whether the biography of Otis Redding meets the law’s definition of “public interest or concern.” Redding’s widow, Zelma Redding, and his former business manager, Philip Walden Sr., brought suit in Fulton County State Court against Scott Freeman, a former senior editor at Atlanta Magazine, alleging the writer included unsubstantiated “street rumors” and lies in his book “Otis! The Otis Redding Story.” Among the objectionable passages included in the book is a discussion of “unsubstantiated theories floating around” that Walden hired someone — possibly a member of the Mafia in Cleveland — to sabotage Otis Redding’s plane so that he could collect a $1 million life insurance policy before the singer could leave his employ. Redding died Dec. 10, 1967, when his plane crashed into Lake Monona as it approached the Madison, Wis., airport in bad weather. In addition to Redding, five other people died in the crash. The flight originated in Cleveland. At the time, Walden and Redding were shareholders in Redwal Music Co. Walden says in the suit that the singer was his best friend and Redding’s sudden death devastated him. Walden later founded Capricorn Records and found further success in promoting and managing such Southern bands as the Allman Brothers Band and the Marshall Tucker Band. He and his family now run Velocette Records in Atlanta. Zelma Redding claims the book caused her “emotional distress” by recounting false rumors that her husband cheated on her and was going to divorce her. A trio of lawyers — Terry D. Jackson of Atlanta; Bobby Lee Cook of Summerville’s Cook & Connelly; and Philip M. Walden Jr., the plaintiff’s son, of Jones & Walden — represents the singer’s widow and former business manager. SUIT: BOOK DAMAGED MOVIE DEAL The suit seeks total damages of $15 million as well as litigation costs from Freeman and publishing house St. Martin’s Press for allegedly libelous statements in the book. In addition, the suit includes a claim for tortious interference with contractual and business relations. The elder Walden and Zelma Redding have optioned the film rights for a screenplay about Otis Redding’s life story to Universal Studios. The book, the suit says, has damaged their chances of getting a movie contract. Walden v. Freeman, No. 04-VS-064224 (Fult. St. March 18, 2004) In addition, Walden Jr. said his father and Otis Redding had “key man” insurance policies on each other because they were business partners, but neither policy was worth $1 million. The attorney said he thought the figure was closer to $100,000. In any event, neither his father nor any legal entity associated with him ever collected any insurance money after Redding’s death, he said. According to the lawyers representing Freeman and St. Martin’s Press — Peter C. Canfield, Thomas M. Clyde and Christopher L. Meazell, all of Dow, Lohnes & Albertson — the suit falls under the anti-SLAPP statute and ought to be dismissed for failure to verify the complaint as required by O.C.G.A. � 9-11-11.1. In response, the plaintiffs’ lawyers say the anti-SLAPP statute does not apply, and therefore they are not required to file the verification. ‘NEVER INTENDED TO PROTECT’ MEDIA In outlining the jurisdiction of the anti-SLAPP law, Walden, Jackson and Cook recount some of the language from a similar libel case that, coincidentally, also featured Freeman as a defendant. That suit arose from an article written by Freeman for Atlanta Magazine in the December 1997 issue. The plaintiff’s son had been arrested for murder, and he alleged that Freeman accused him of interfering with the investigation by calling in favors from Fulton County prosecutors. Davis v. Emmis Publishing Corp., 244 Ga. App. 795 (2000). The Court of Appeals affirmed the suit’s dismissal based on the statute of limitations, but Judge Frank M. Eldridge, now retired, wrote a special concurrence to point out that the anti-SLAPP statute would not apply to the case. “The free speech under the Act involves public debate and petition for redress of grievances involving significant public interest as opposed to freedom of the press in general,” the judge wrote. Eldridge went on to write that the anti-SLAPP statute “was never intended to protect the media from tort liability, which already enjoy extensive statutory and constitutional protections from tort liability.” In the years since Eldridge’s retirement, the appellate courts have further addressed the types of cases in which the anti-SLAPP statute ought to apply. Clyde contends that Georgia courts as well as those of other states have said anti-SLAPP law should apply to the media. “Plaintiffs’ argument can be summed up as asserting the book is not a matter of public interest. But that doesn’t add up,” Clyde wrote in an e-mailed statement. “Otis Redding is an icon in Georgia, especially in Macon. He has a bridge, a park and a portion of a public museum dedicated to him. A book examining his life and death is very much of public interest.” Freeman, whose writing has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, is currently the editor-in-chief of Las Vegas Life magazine.

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