Reporters held in contempt over source of Jewell allegations
GEORGIA–A state trial judge in Atlanta ordered two Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters to jail in early June for refusing to identify the confidential source who informed them that security guard Richard Jewell was the leading suspect in the 1996 bombing at the summer Olympic games in Atlanta.
Judge John Mather’s finding that reporters Kathy Scruggs and Ron Martz were in contempt of court was stayed, however, after the Journal-Constitution filed notice that it would appeal the order to the Georgia Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
Jewell sued the newspaper in 1997 for libel based on articles reporting that, after he was credited with discovering the bomb and saving lives, he approached the news media and sought publicity for his actions. Other Journal-Constitution articles Jewell claims are defamatory reported that his prior record as a law enforcement officer had been erratic and that investigators believed he fit the profile of a lone bomber.
Mather originally ruled in April 1998 that the reporters could not assert a qualified reporter’s privilege under the state shield law to protect their source because they were parties to Jewell’s libel lawsuit, and in mid-March 1999, Mather gave the reporters 60 days to reveal the source’s identity.
When the reporters refused to do so, Mather ordered them to jail for civil contempt until they disclose the identity of the source.
“What must stand paramount in a free society is that no person or entity, whatever their function, may disobey a Court order without consequences,” Mather wrote. “The previous Orders regarding disclosure were unequivocal and parties may not rationally rely on advice of counsel that is contrary to the clear directives of the Court.” (Jewell v. Cox Enters., Inc.; Media Counsel: Peter Canfield, Atlanta)