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FROM BARBARA W. WALL: LEGAL WATCH
DISMISSAL OF FORMER ATHLETE'S LIBEL SUIT AGAINST DETROIT NEWS UPHELD

A Michigan appeals court last month upheld the dismissal of former baseball star Cecil Fielder's libel lawsuit against The Detroit News over articles reporting that he had lost millions of dollars gambling. (Fielder v. Greater Media, Inc., July 25, 2006.)

Fielder was a popular slugger with the Detroit Tigers and several other teams in the 1980s and 1990s. He made the all-star team three times and earned more than $47 million in his career.

In October 2004, The Detroit News published two reports about Fielder. The newspaper reported that an "unstoppable gambling compulsion" had caused him to lose all his money and shattered his "dream life." The articles also reported that he was not in contact with his family, that he was "in hiding" and that his wife and daughter receive no money from him. The Detroit News based its reports largely on the voluminous public record chronicling Fielder's difficulties.

Fielder sued the newspaper, reporter Fred Girard, and several others for defamation, invasion of privacy and interference with business relations. The trial court dismissed Fielder's claims, and the appeals court affirmed.

The appeals court agreed with the trial court's holding that Fielder was a "public figure" and ruled the case was properly dismissed because Fielder could not show that the newspaper published the articles with "clear and convincing" evidence of "actual malice" -- the requisite standard of fault in public-figure libel actions. To establish actual malice, Fielder needed to prove that the newspaper published the statements at issue with knowledge of falsity or with reckless disregard for whether they were false or not. In light of the substantial evidence -- much of it from public records -- documenting the truth of the facts in the articles, both the trial and appellate courts concluded that the newspaper was entitled to summary judgment.

Federal court rules public can be prosecuted for receiving and disclosing classified information

Late this week, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia issued a decision of tremendous import for those who receive classified information. Judge T.S. Ellis III denied a motion to dismiss the government's Espionage Act prosecution of two former AIPAC lobbyists who allegedly received and subsequently transmitted classified information. (U.S. v. Rosen and Weismann, August 9, 2006) This recent ruling -- if it stands -- may put news organizations at risk for reporting classified information provided by government sources.

Legal Watch will address the decision in detail next week.