WND’s $165 million First Amendment case has been sent to the Tennessee Supreme Court with a request for a ruling that would bring state law on freedom of the press into alignment with pronouncements from the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as repair an appellate court order that took assumptions in the case and simply turned them into facts, according to a new filing.
The submission by lawyer Larry Parrish followed by just a few days a similar request from Sam Cole, a lawyer representing reporters Charles C. Thompson II and Tony Hays, who also say state law gives the appearance of having a conflict with the U.S. Constitution over those press issues.
The requests come in a libel lawsuit against WND, the two reporters and others over a series of 18 investigative reports the reporters completed, and which then were posted on the WND website during the 2000 presidential race.
Most of the stories documented allegations of corruption involving then-Vice President Al Gore and others in Gore’s home state of Tennessee. The legal action, which would by any existing standards smash records for such a case, was filed by Savannah, Tenn., businessman and Democrat Party activist Clark Jones, who raised more than $100,000 for Gore’s presidential campaign.
In it, Jones claims personal embarrassment and humiliation as a result of some of the articles, which said that he reportedly intervened in a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe into narcotics trafficking in Hardin County in 1999. In addition, the car dealer claims that 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. He claims business losses and health problems resulted from the series as well.
Some Tennessee observers believe the series had such impact that it was responsible for Gore losing the state ? and thus the presidential election. Had Gore won his home state, the disputed Florida vote in 2000 would have been meaningless and Gore would have had enough electoral votes to become president.
The reporters are objecting to a lower court’s ruling that unless they reveal a confidential news source, they will not be allowed to use the truth of the statements as a 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.”
The request from Parrish, on behalf of WND, involves First Amendment free press and other issues, including a dismissal order issued by an appellate-level court that moved some of the issues most at dispute in the case from allegation to fact, even though there was no evidence to support that action.
“The issue is critically important to whether or not there can be reporting on information from confidential sources. If the ruling of the court of appeals is upheld, and that becomes the law of the land, the risk of reporting information from a confidential source would be so great that all reporting henceforth would have to be from identified sources,” Parrish told WND.
“I’m not a reporter, but that would probably eliminate a large part of investigative reporting generally,” he said.
The order at issue concluded that an appeal by Hays and Thompson should be dismissed, “together with the appeals of WND and (defendant Rebecca) Hagelin” with costs assessed to those parties.
The problem there is that WND and Hagelin didn’t file an appeal, the new court filing said.
That appellate order then was followed by the appellate court statement that the reporters “were freelance reporters engaged by the Defendant WorldNetDaily.com, Inc. [WND] to write a series of articles about the Plaintiff’s alleged activities which were published, with extensive notoriety, by WND, and were prima facie defamatory.”
But there has been no trial, no jury, and no conclusions that the reporters actually had been “engaged,” that the stories were “published,” “with extensive notoriety” and were “prima facie defamatory.” The appellate court opinion simply stated those disputed issues as fact, the court filing said.
“It would be hard to conceive an issue more in dispute in the trial court than whether what was communicated was or was not ‘defamatory.’ If Appellants prevail in establishing that the communications in play are non-defamatory (i.e., are true), the case is over,” the petition said.
“In spite of the statement of the court of appeals ? the record on appeal presents evidence all of which is of one accord and indisputable in establishing that WND did not ‘engage’ appellants to write the articles that are the subject of the instant case. Instead, appellants did the investigation and wrote the articles, without WND even having knowledge that the articles were being written or the investigation being done, and, after the articles were finished, the appellants contacted WND and asked WND to post the articles on WND’s website for dissemination,” the statement said.
“Appellees respectfully urge this Court, in this appeal, to resolve the critically important First Amendment issues concerning fundamental constitutional rights of Appellants, as freelance reporters, and WND, as a third-party who posted the reported news gathered by freelance reporters on WND’s website,” the present court submission also asks.
“The questions presented have never been addressed by this Court or any other Tennessee court, although the issue has been resolved uniformly by numerous courts throughout the United States, both state and federal, in a way favorable to the position of Appellants and Appellees.”
WND’s newest filing defines the issues on which it is seeking decisions as including:
- Is the lower court order to compel the reporters to give the name of the confidential source or give up the truth defense erroneous?
- Is the court ruling that Jones was a public figure subject to amendment?
- Is the lower court ruling denying the defendants’ motion for summary judgment erroneous?
“Appellants ? have well-stated the extreme importance this Court and the United States Supreme Court have given the First Amendment rights to news gatherers and news publishers, including accommodations essential to make those First Amendment rights meaningful in a practical way, e.g., the ability of a freelance reporter to gather information from a confidential source without sacrificing, personally, the reporter’s entitlement to due process in the courts,” the filing said.
WND’s rights would be similar, “if not exactly the same,” as a news publisher, it said.
“Literally, myriad cases could be cited from this Court, from courts of other states and from the federal forum, including the United States Supreme Court, to establish how very fundamental and very vital, to our existence as a Nation, extraordinary protection of the First Amendment rights of the press is,” the filing said.
However, the lower court “minced no words” when it summarily found that appellants have “no privilege” allowing them to withhold identification of sources from whom freelance reporters obtained information.
WND argued that if the only news that is reportable is from an identified source, the First Amendment rights of every U.S. citizen will be damaged.
“The inability to claim that the information from the source whose identity remains confidential is truth, ? dictates that the reporter and/or the third-party website provider must defend the defamation claims in the face of an irrefutable presumption that the reported and/or website-posted information is false,” WND said.
If the court orders controlling in the WND case now had been in place during Watergate, not even the Washington Post could have assumed the risk of publishing anything from Deep Throat, the petition said.
“It is easy to say, particularly for persons who admire and support Vice President Gore, that a rule like that declared by the Sua Sponte Dismissal Order would be a salutary rule because it would protect against reporting such as that of the Appellants and would have prevented website owners like WND from posting what Appellants reported; likewise, particularly for persons who admired and supported President Nixon, a rule like that declared by the Sua Sponte Dismissal Order would have prevented the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein that led to the revelations of Watergate corruption,” the petition said.
“For the law, practically speaking, to cut off non-negligent and non-malicious dissemination of information because it is from a confidential source so infringes First Amendment rights of speech and press that the public interest is injured; thus, minimal constitutional dictates cannot tolerate such an abuse,” said the petition.
Jones was quoted in the articles as denying the various allegations, and he and his lawyer to date have not documented evidence refuting the claims.
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.
Joseph Farah, founder and editor of WND, is appalled at the court rulings thus far in Tennessee ? as well as the lack of attention by First Amendment activists, journalistic colleagues and the national media establishment to what is arguably the biggest defamation case in the country’s history.
“It’s not WorldNetDaily on trial in Tennessee, it’s the First Amendment,” said Farah. “Where in heaven’s name have the American Civil Liberties Union and the big media been for the last six years as our little company carries the full load of responsibility for defending something as basic to our country’s founding principles as freedom of the press?”
Farah continued: “Not only is this a huge defamation case in terms of possible judgments, it is also huge because it involves critical reporting about the 2000 presidential election. Politically protected speech and reporting doesn’t get much more basic than that.”
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.
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:
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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.”