In its ruling last week overturning a lower-court judgment against filmmaker-journalist Patrick Matrisciana, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals revisited a basic constitutional provision: freedom of the press.
As previously reported by WorldNetDaily, Matrisciana was sued for libel in 1996 by two Arkansas law enforcement officers mentioned in a documentary video the filmmaker produced. The video, “Obstruction of Justice: the Mena Connection,” focuses on the unsolved deaths of Kevin Ives and Don Henry. In the documentary, Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department Lts. Jay Campbell and Kirk Lane were listed among six law enforcement officers that alleged eyewitnesses said could be implicated “in the murders and the subsequent cover-up.”
Ives and Henry were found dead in 1987 after being hit by a train while lying on the tracks. Their deaths were initially ruled accidental due to marijuana intoxication, but a second autopsy prompted by Ives’ parents suggested the boys were murdered and their bodies laid on the tracks.
The officers are alleged by Matrisciana to have connections with former president and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, and the men may have been involved in illegal drug trafficking, the filmmaker said. According to Matrisciana’s theory about the still-unsolved murders, the boys stumbled into witnessing an illegal drug transfer and were killed.
Initially, an Arkansas trial court ruled against Matrisciana and co-defendant Citizens for an Honest Government, ordering them to pay a combined judgment upwards of $600,000. The ruling was appealed, and the lower-court ruling was overturned last week.
The unanimous appeals court said the lieutenants were public figures and therefore had to prove Matrisciana knew the information was false or that he was reckless in weighing information presented in the film. The three-judge panel said public officials, in bringing a libel suit, bear the burden of proving statements made by a defendant are false. Campbell and Lane failed to meet that standard. Rather, the court pointed to the plaintiffs’ attacks on witness credibility.
“Even if we assume Campbell and Lane satisfied their burden of falsity, we find their claims still fail. A public-figure plaintiff must do more than prove falsity to prevail in a defamation claim,” the judges wrote, citing prior legal precedent. “Even if the defendant’s remarks are proven both defamatory and false, a public-figure plaintiff must also prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted with actual malice – that is, that the defendant made false remarks with a high degree of awareness of probable falsity, or that the defendant entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication.”
The opinion reiterates testimony given by WorldNetDaily’s Editor and CEO Joseph Farah, who served as an expert witness in the case.
“How can you be guilty of reckless disregard for the truth when you are passionately pursuing what you sincerely believe to be the truth?” Farah challenged the plaintiff’s attorney during the lower-court trial.
While the appeals court’s decisive opinion in Matrisciana’s favor is seen as a clear victory under the First Amendment, the judicial panel did caution the filmmaker.
“To say that Matrisciana did not cross the line into public-figure libel is not to say he stayed within the bounds of ethics and fairness,” the court wrote. The judges also said they do not deal in conspiracy theories.
Matrisciana is pleased with the court’s decision, saying he was “stunned” by last week’s ruling.
“I can’t really digest it. All of the sudden this burden that you’ve been under since 1996 has been lifted. I just felt numb. But still, intellectually, I was quite delighted,” he said. The initial trial-court ruling “had been such a miscarriage of justice in Arkansas that I thought anything was possible,” he added.
Indeed, several observers of the trial believed a ruling against Matrisciana could have had a chilling effect on the press as a watchdog of government.
“If government officials can successfully sue the press every time they get their feelings hurt, you simply wouldn’t have a free press anymore,” Farah said in 1997, before the initial trial began.
Matrisciana, who also produced the hard-hitting documentary “The Clinton Chronicles,” took the argument a step further, saying freedom of the press was not the only thing on the line in his case.
“If we had lost the appeal, one of the greatest freedoms that we have in this country would be taken away, and that’s an individual’s right – not just a journalist’s right – to hold public officials accountable for their actions without the threat of a lawsuit,” he told WND this week. “We were portrayed in the Arkansas courtroom as money-grubbers who knew what we were doing was wrong, who viscously attacked and maligned these two police officers. I was amazed at how justice worked in Arkansas.”
The five-year-long legal battle has “almost destroyed us financially,” Matrisciana said of his production company, Jeremiah Films. At the time he was sued in 1996, the filmmaker had about 18 to 20 employees, he said. Today he has four. His company had good credit, an untouched credit line and a “substantial” amount of money in the bank. Now the credit line is maxed and his funds are depleted, he noted. The journalist estimates the total cost of the lawsuit, from legal fees to business losses, at around $1 million.
“We’re left with a lot of experience, and we’re a lot wiser,” he remarked. “Having gone through the court system, I’m not as Pollyanna about the legal system of the United States as I once was.” Nevertheless, “I would make the movie again,” he said, calling “Obstruction of Justice” one of his best works.
Through it all, he believes “there is still justice in America.” For that and his ultimate victory, “we give God the glory,” he said.
Matrisciana also credited the United States Justice Foundation and its director Gary Kreep with standing by him with moral and financial support during the legal battle.
Noting Ives’ and Henry’s killers have yet to be brought to justice, the journalist said he would like to revisit the case. As yet, his company does not have the financial resources to resume its investigation. For now, Jeremiah Films is being run by Matrisciana’s wife and has a new release called, “Harry Potter: Witchcraft repackaged – making evil look innocent.”
“I think it’s going to be a major controversial film, bigger than ‘The Clinton Chronicles,’” he said, noting the video features interviews with practicing witches. “We prove, I think conclusively, that the Harry Potter books are a gateway into the occult for children.”
Matrisciana is now working as executive director of Tim LaHaye Productions. LaHaye, famed co-author of the apocalyptic “Left Behind” series, is described by Matrisciana as “one of the greatest human beings alive, as far as I’m concerned.” While Tim LaHaye Productions was not involved in the “Left Behind” feature film starring Kirk Cameron, the company is hoping to create a television series based on the books.