This case wasn’t Little’s first inside a courtroom. With his attorney William Eugene Rutledge often at his side, the litigious councilman has filed lawsuits against a collection of perceived foes. Little joined others on the council to create last year’s Grand Inquisition, a sort of kangaroo court for settling old scores.
Little took Consolidated Publishing — this newspaper’s parent company — to court in 2009. He claimed he was libeled by news articles and editorials in The Star, particularly items noting his interest in hiring a west Alabama woman to evaluate the city’s human-resources practices. A Feb. 19, 2009, news story included comments from City Councilman John Spain, who mentioned rumors of a relationship between Little and the consultant, Yolanda Jackson of Uniontown. Little rejected the suggestion, saying he “never had a relationship with that girl.”
A follow-up editorial focused on the bigger point: Little had once more pressed for a policy that did nothing to advance the cause of the city of Anniston. None of the proposals by Jackson, who was paid $2,500 for the audit, appear to have ever been implemented by the city. Unfortunately for him, very few of Little’s plans work out or even get off the ground.
Instead of rebutting the newspaper’s editorials and articles through a letter to the editor or a meeting with newspaper staff, Little headed to court. In March 2010, his lawsuit was dismissed in local circuit court for failing to meet the standards of defamation. Little and his attorney appealed, winning one round at the state Court of Civil Appeals before subsequently losing a re-hearing there earlier this year.
On Thursday, the state Supreme Court rejected Little’s next appeal, meaning The Star won its case. What began as a lawsuit filed by an unhappy councilman in 2009 finally ended 30 months later. It was a waste of time and money — his, ours and the state’s courts.
We can’t really claim any valuable First Amendment precedent has been chiseled into stone. Little had a thin case, essentially fighting the uphill battle that a public figure can be wronged by a newspaper fairly and accurately reporting on his actions. The U.S. Supreme Court’s standards — most firmly established, interestingly enough, in a case based in Montgomery, Times vs. Sullivan — put The Anniston Star and its coverage of the city councilman well within the bounds of non-libelous reporting.
This is not to imply the news media are free from mistakes; in the story on the HR audit, The Star’s original headline incorrectly stated Little’s role, something we corrected and apologized for. There are legitimate cases of libel, Little’s case just wasn’t one of them.