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Two reporters who wrote a series of 18 investigative reports posted by WND during the 2000 presidential race, most of them documenting allegations of corruption involving then-Vice President Gore and others in Gore’s home state of Tennessee, say the state statutes are in conflict with the U.S. Constitution over press freedom.
Lawyer Sam Cole, representing reporters Charles C. Thompson II and Tony Hays, has submitted a request to the state Supreme Court seeking permission to have the high court review the conflict that has come up in the lawsuit over the series posted on the Internet by WND.
The $165 million libel action was filed after the reports appeared by Savannah, Tenn., businessman and Democratic Party activist Clark Jones against WorldNetDaily.com, Thompson, Hays among others.
Hays told WND that the issue developed over his choice not to reveal a confidential source used in assembling the reports. The trial level court then cited state law that assembles a “privilege” rule for reporters, but creates an exemption for any “allegedly defamatory” information.
That would mean a reporter, who like Hays declined to reveal a source in a case where anyone was alleging any defamation, would essentially give up their defense.
“What our lawyer has put in his application to the Tennessee Supreme Court is that that provision is unconstitutional,” Hays told WND. “The U.S. Constitution requires that no law shall be made that will impede a free press.”
And therein lies the difficulty, since the Tennessee limitation could be interpreted as impeding a free press, Hays said.
The state law says reporters “shall not be required by a court, a grand jury, the general assembly, or any administrative body, to disclose ? any information or the source of any information procured for publication or broadcast.” But it also says that section doesn’t apply “with respect to the source of any allegedly defamatory information in any case where the defendant in a civil action for defamation asserts a defense based on the source of such information.”
That essentially means the fact that the information is true cannot be used in a defense in such cases, unless the source also is revealed.
Hays said those and other issues were being presented to the state Supreme Court in an application for permission to appeal.
He said the Tennessee Circuit Court of Appeals in Jackson already ruled the reporters didn’t have a right to appeal because they didn’t have privilege any longer, but then when they petitioned for a re-hearing, the court granted permission to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
“The point of fact is that we didn’t do anything wrong with the story,” he said.
Larry Parrish, a separate media lawyer who is defending WND in the case, said his appeal application will be in to the Supreme Court soon. There are several issues dealing with the Internet news site, but they are not identical to the issues facing the reporters.
For example, the state court of appeals “out of the blue and without any evidence” described the two reporters as “agents” of WND, even though that’s been a disputed statement from the beginning of the case, Parrish said. In fact, WND only became aware of the writers after the articles already were completed, officials said.
The source issue affects WND in that the trial level judge ruled there would be no truth defense unless the source was revealed, and he failed to discriminate between the reporter, who had the source’ s name, and WND, which didn’t have it.
The lawsuit stems from the reports, which ran from September to December 2000, that included information about Jones.
Jones, who raised more than $100,000 for Gore’s presidential campaign, alleges personal embarrassment and humiliation from the articles, which said he reportedly intervened in a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe into narcotics trafficking in Hardin County in 1999. The car dealer also alleges the articles implicated him in the 1980 arson of his own business, the Jones Motor Company, and also pegged him as a suspected drug dealer.
Parrish also noted the court orders thus far have included statements made as fact that still haven’t been determined by a jury. For example, a court order described the articles as having been “published” with “extensive notoriety” and were “prima facie defamatory.”
“It would be impossible to conceive a more contested fact in the trial court (than the reference to defamation),” the news site’s lawyer said. “But, more importantly, this contested fact has not been decided in any way or by any proceeding in the trial court.”
Hays also completed a 20-part series on drug trafficking in west Tennessee that primarily was responsible for the Courier of Savannah winning the 2000 Public Service Award from the Tennessee Press Association. He has published two novels, numerous magazine and newspaper articles on Tennessee political corruption, and a history of the Savannah area, the last through a grant from the Tennessee Historical Commission.
Thompson, who started his journalism career in print media, soon moved to television, where he captured an Emmy for his investigative reporting as well as the Headliner’s Award. He worked for a number of years as Mike Wallace’s producer at CBS’ 60 Minutes and was a founding producer of ABC’s 20/20. His investigation into the explosion of “gun turret two” on the U.S.S. Iowa in 1989 resulted in a book, published by W.W. Norton in 1999 and a movie starring James Caan.
Also named in the suit were five John Does and five Jane Does, as well as the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., WSIB-AM in Selmer, Tenn., the Decatur County Chronicle, WTVF Newschannel 5 in Nashville, the Savannah Snitch, the Savannah Journal, Larry Brinton, a commentator for WTVF, H.J. Maxedon of Selmer and Rebecca Hagelin, at the time WND’s vice president for communication.
“Some people have evidently been made uncomfortable by this series of stories,” Joseph Farah, editor of WorldNetDaily.com, said at the time. “I’m not surprised. Good journalism often makes people uncomfortable. But uncomfortable does not equate with inaccurate, libelous, actionable, unfair or malicious. WorldNetDaily has made every effort to ensure that its reporting in this series ? and in everything it has covered ? was fair, honest, truthful, balanced and accurate.”
In a related development, the California Supreme Court has ruled that websites that publish inflammatory information written by others cannot be sued for libel. The court concluded that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 provides broad immunity from defamation lawsuits for people who publish information on the Internet that was gathered from another source.
The ruling leaves open for damages only the original source of the statement, the ruling concluded.
Help WND fight landmark 1st Amendment legal battle
WorldNetDaily?s only recourse in this lawsuit is to fight every step of the way in its pursuit of truth. If you would like to help offset the enormous legal costs involved in defending against this attack on the First Amendment, you may make a donation online to WND’s Legal Defense Fund, or by calling WND toll-free at 1-800-4WNDCOM (1-800-496-3266), or by mailing a check ? made payable to WorldNetDaily Legal Defense Fund ? to:
P.O. Box 1627
Medford, OR 97501
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – An 8-year-old, $165 million defamation case against WND springing from a series of stories about then-presidential candidate Al Gore has been settled.
The terms of the out-of-court agreement with auto dealer Clark Jones are confidential. The settlement averts the need for a trial in Tennessee that was scheduled for next month.
Below is the text of the settlement statement jointly drafted by all parties in the lawsuit. Both sides agreed to limit comment on the lawsuit to this statement:
“A lawsuit for libel, defamation, false light and conspiracy was filed by Clark Jones of Savannah, Tennessee against WorldNetDaily.com, Tony Hays and Charles H. Thompson II arising out of a press release issued by WorldNetDaily.com on September 18, 2000, and articles dated September 20, October 8, November 24 and December 5, 2000, written by Tony Hays and Charles H. Thompson, II, posted on WorldNetDaily.com’s website.
“The original news release by WorldNetDaily.com of September 18, 2000, and the article by Hays and Thompson of September 20, 2000, contained statements attributed to named sources, which statements cast Clark Jones in a light which, if untrue, defamed him by asserting that the named persons said that he had interfered with a criminal investigation, had been a ‘subject’ of a criminal investigation, was listed on law enforcement computers as a ‘dope dealer,’ and implied that he had ties to others involved in alleged criminal activity. These statements were repeated in the subsequently written articles and funds solicitations posted on WorldNetDaily.com’s website. Clark Jones emphatically denied the truth of these statements, denied any criminal activity and called upon the publisher and authors to retract them.
“Discovery has revealed to WorldNetDaily.com that no witness verifies the truth of what the witnesses are reported by authors to have stated. Additionally, no document has been discovered that provides any verification that the statements written were true.
“Factual discovery in the litigation and response from Freedom of Information Act requests to law enforcement agencies confirm Clark Jones’ assertion that his name has never been on law enforcement computers, that he has not been the subject of any criminal investigation nor has he interfered with any investigation as stated in the articles. Discovery has also revealed that the sources named in the publications have stated under oath that statements attributed to them in the articles were either not made by them, were misquoted by the authors, were misconstrued, or the statements were taken out of context.
“WorldNetDaily.com and its editors never intended any harm to Clark Jones and regret whatever harm occurred. WorldNetDaily.com has no verified information by which to question Mr. Jones’ honesty and integrity, and having met him, has no claim or reason to question his honesty and integrity. WorldNetDaily.com wishes him well.”