California Supreme Court to hear landmark libel case

Wednesday, August 20, 1997

Who killed RFK? That controversy, fueled by the Globe’s review of Robert Morrow’s controversial 1988 book, The Senator Must Die: The Murder of Robert F. Kennedy, has led to a highly-anticipated legal battle now before the California Supreme Court.

In 1989, the Globe, a tabloid magazine, ran a picture of California farmer Khalid Khawar as RFK’s “real assassin.” The tabloid was reviewing Morrow’s book, which identified Khawar as the former senator’s “real assassin … a young man who called himself Ali Ahmand.”

Mr. Khawar and his father sued Morrow, Morrow’s now-defunct publisher and the Globe. In April 1994, a Los Angeles jury awarded Khawar over $1.1 million, including $500,000 in punitive damages against the tabloid. In June 1996, a California appeals court upheld the jury verdict.

Now, Mr. Khawar faces legal opposition at the state’s highest court from 23 different media organizations and public interest groups who fear the case could set a dangerous precedent. These media organizations — which include ABC, CBS, NBC, the Associated Press, Knight-Ridder Inc. and the New York Times — contend all the Globe did was accurately report on the contents of a book.

Among the issues the California Supreme Court confronts are whether Mr. Khawar is a limited-purpose public figure who must prove actual malice or a private person (as the jury determined) who faces a less burdensome legal standard, and whether the neutral reportage doctrine immunizes a paper that republishes the contents of a book that contains allegedly defamatory statements.

“Mr. Khawar hopes not only to establish legal precedent that will protect private figures from the tabloid press, but just as importantly, he hopes to help support mainstream media’s journalistic standards and editorial judgment from the creeping tabloidization that uncritical repetition of rank rumor portends,” Francis Pizzulli, Khawar’s attorney, told The First Amendment Center.

Pizzulli also told The National Law Journal that the media organizations supporting the Globe fail to appreciate that of the 150 media organizations who received a copy of Morrow’s book, only the Globe published a story about it.

Anthony Glassman, one of the Globe’s attorneys, told The First Amendment Center: “The court of appeal’s decision, if allowed to stand, will have a terrible chilling effect on the mainstream media, basically precluding them from writing or covering controversial topics. Taken literally, the court of appeal’s decision would require the media to reexamine a book that took months, maybe even years, to compose. The newsworthy event is that the book has been written. It’s up to the reader to make their own decision as to whether the charges are unfounded. This shoot-the-messenger theory is not — and should not be — the law.”

A date has not been set for argument before the California Supreme Court. Legal pundits seem to agree that however the California court rules, the case will be appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which has not decided a libel case in six years and has never directly addressed the issue of First Amendment protection for news accounts or review of books.