Appeals court rules against Star on libel, against Little on outrage claim
by Ben Cunningham
Metro Editor
Dec 03, 2010 | 5438 views |  3 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A state appeals court today reversed a lower-court decision to dismiss a libel suit against The Anniston Star by Anniston City Councilman Ben Little.

The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals was divided 3-2 in its opinion, ruling that the lower court’s summary judgment dismissing the libel claim was improper. It allowed to stand the lower court’s decision to dismiss Little’s claim of outrage, based on allegations the newspaper was waging a “vituperous campaign” against the councilman that could lead to racially motivated violence against him.

“I’m just thankful to the court for looking at the law and ruling on the law,” Little said by phone today from Denver, where he is attending a National League of Cities event.

Bob Davis, The Star’s editor, said he was “almost certain” the paper would appeal the ruling.

“We remain confident that our work has not in any way libeled Councilman Little,” Davis said. “We stand by our reporting and we stand by our editorials, and we stand by our mission to hold public officials accountable.”

View the decision by the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

The libel claim stems from a February 2009 story in the newspaper in which City Councilman John Spain is quoted as saying there were rumors Little had a “personal relationship” with a Uniontown woman the city hired in 2008 to audit Anniston’s human resources practices. Little also cited subsequent editorials referencing the audit and the allegations of a relationship.

The phrase “personal relationship” has become key in the case. Calhoun County Circuit Judge Malcolm Street wrote in his ruling for the newspaper in March that the phrase was not capable of being defamatory. The appeals court disagreed, saying that the story and subsequent editorials implied Little was directing city business to the woman because of an alleged romantic relationship between them. The court decided that point by saying the paper hadn’t proved it was entitled to the summary judgment Street granted.

The appeals court also wrote that the newspaper should have more thoroughly investigated Spain’s claim before publishing its story, because antagonism between the councilmen should have provided reason to doubt the claim’s truth.

However, that part of the court’s opinion appears to be based, at least in part, on an error. The opinion says the City Council met Feb. 18, 2009, with The Star’s story appearing the next day, and the opinion suggests that story could have remained newsworthy for “days or weeks” while the paper investigated the claims. In fact, the council met Feb. 10, and discussed the audit. Council members at that meeting questioned city staff and the Uniontown woman, Yolanda Jackson. The Star held the story about Spain’s call for an investigation into the audit for more than a week while it attempted to contact Jackson.

Little denied the existence of a personal relationship with Jackson, and is quoted saying as much in the Feb. 19 story.

The story’s last line reads, “Several attempts to reach Jackson this week failed.”

The opinion accuses the paper of “printing the story despite the total absence of any investigation of the truthfulness of the rumor.”

The court also said that Little’s claims that the newspaper waged a racist campaign against him, constituting “the tort of outrage,” were not supported by his claims that The Star printed his name more frequently than those of his fellow councilmen. The court wrote that “Little has not presented substantial evidence to support his theory.”

Judge Terry A. Moore wrote the opinion, with judges Craig Sorrell Pittman and Terri Willingham Thomas concurring. Presiding Judge William C. Thompson and Judge Tommy Bryan concurred with the judgment on the outrage claim, but disagreed on reversing the judgment for the libel claim.

Little’s suit is against Consolidated Publishing Co., which publishes The Star, and against former reporter Megan Nichols, who covered the city of Anniston and wrote the news story in question.

If the appeals court’s ruling stands, the case would return to Calhoun County Circuit Court for a potential trial. The newspaper could ask the appeals court for a rehearing, or appeal the decision to the Alabama Supreme Court, according to the paper’s attorney.

Little’s attorney, Gene Rutledge, said he thought the court’s decision on the libel claim was based on the story’s reprinting of a rumor, that there was an implication of a romantic relationship in the story and subsequent editorials, and on the newspaper’s alleged failure to investigate the rumor.

“They’re the reasons I took the case to begin with,” he said.

Rutledge also cited a headline that ran with the story that incorrectly stated Little had “ordered” the audit. As a councilman, Little had one vote among five in deciding whether to hire Jackson for the audit. (The Star corrected that information once it was brought to the paper’s attention.)

Little said he intended the paper no ill will.

“I have no malice or intent against anyone,” he said. “I’m just trying to do my job.”

He said he hoped the paper would be fair, but that most of what it prints is “absurdities and lies.”

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