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Posted by Susan J. Levy

Case Caption: Bryant, in his capacity as Executor of the Estate of Richard Jewell v. Cox Enterprise, Inc. d/b/a The Atlanta Journal Constitution, et al., 2011 Ga. App. Lexis 662 Court: Georgia Court of Appeals Plaintiff’s Attorneys: L. Lin Wood, Jr., Wood, Hernacki & Evans, LLC Defendant’s Attorneys: Peter Canfield, Dow Lohnes
Alleged Damages: Libel Ruling: Georgia Court of Appeals Affirmed Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment Date: July 13, 2011
Summary: Fifteen years after the Centennial Olympic Park bombing stunned Atlanta and disrupted the 1996 Olympic festivities, the libel suit brought by the Estate of Richard Jewell against the Atlanta Journal Constitution continues its journey through Georgia courts. On July 13, 2011, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled against Mr. Jewell’s Estate and affirmed the AJC’s motion for summary judgment on the libel claims initiated by Mr. Jewell before his death in 2007.

The facts underlying this case are now undisputed. In the early morning hours of July 27, 1996, Richard Jewell was working in Centennial Olympic Park as a private security guard, when he noticed a knapsack under a park bench and alerted the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. While Jewell and other law enforcement officers were evacuating people from the area, the bomb exploded, killing two and wounding over 100. Jewell was originally hailed as a hero, but soon became a suspect in the bombing. The AJC published an article entitled, “FBI suspects ‘hero’ guard may have planted bomb,” identified Jewell as the focus of the federal investigation, claimed Jewell fit the profile of a lone bomber, and compared him to Wayne Williams, the notorious convicted child murderer. Ultimately, Jewell was exonerated and Eric Rudolph admitted to the bombing.

In January, 1997, Jewell filed a complaint for libel alleging that he had been defamed by the AJC. The case wound its way through the trial court, the Court of Appeals and back, and will likely reach the Georgia Supreme Court or United States Supreme Court before it’s over. In this detailed opinion, the Court of Appeals expressed compassion, sympathy, and gratitude toward Richard Jewell and his family, writing:

Richard Jewell is unquestionably a tragic figure. Here is a man whose valor and quick-thinking catapulted him from obscurity to beloved national hero almost instantaneously, who then saw those universal accolades vanish in the blink of an eye. All of a sudden, Jewell was the mistaken villain, forced to endure unfathomable media and law-enforcement scrutiny, as well as rampant media speculation that he may have committed the very crime he had so bravely attempted to thwart. And while Jewell’s good name was eventually cleared, he and his family suffered tremendously as a result of this ordeal. For that we have the greatest sympathy. Nevertheless, the court ruled in favor of the media.

Georgia law defines newspaper libel as any “false and malicious defamation of another in any newspaper, magazine, or periodical tending to injure the reputation of the person and exposing him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule.” O.C.G.A. § 51-5-2. As stated in the Court’s Opinion in this case, to prevail in a libel action, “a plaintiff must prove that the defendant ‘published a defamatory statement about the plaintiff, the defamatory statement was false, the defendant was at fault in publishing it, and the Plaintiff suffered actual injury from the statement.” Jewell v. Cox Enterprise, 2011 Ga. App. LEXIS 662 at *9. The Court found that the articles published by the AJC were substantially true, and “that a reasonable reader would have understood the information to be preliminary in nature and published during the very early stages of an on-going investigation . . . The record [also] definitively establishes that at the time of the publications, investigators did, in fact, suspect that Jewell may have planted the bomb and were actively investigating that theory.”

While this case is not on course to change the legal landscape in the law of defamation, it does capture the hearts and minds of those of us interested in free speech. For an interesting, but somewhat dated, analysis of the Jewell case and other high profile defamation cases, see Robert D. Richards and Clay Calverts’ article, “Suing the News Media in the Age of Tabloid Journalism: L. Lin Wood & the Battle for Accountability.”

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