Former reporter responds to $950,000 libel judgment
Nick DeLeonibus, a reporter for a small-town Tennessee newspaper, received an urgent call one morning in February 1997 asking him to come into the office right away.
“They said something bad had happened,” he said. “I thought maybe the office was burglarized and something had been stolen. Then, a mile and a half away from the office, it finally hit me.”
What hit the now-former reporter was an almost $1 million mistake.
In an otherwise legitimate sports article, DeLeonibus slipped in fictitious, sexually charged quotes and falsely attributed them to the high school soccer coach. The quotes accused student Garrett “Bubba” Dixon Jr. of bestiality and unsanitary habits.
The prank may cost Gallatin's tri-weekly News-Examiner and its parent, Gannett Co. Inc., $950,000 in libel damages. It did cost DeLeonibus his career.
A Sumner County jury awarded Dixon $300,000 in punitive damages on Wednesday in addition to the $500,000 in compensatory damages granted on Tuesday. Coach Rufus Lassiter is to receive $150,000 in compensatory damages.
Now a music store salesman, DeLeonibus testified in the libel lawsuit brought by Dixon and the former soccer coach that he had believed the offending quotes would be removed in the editing process.
He told the jury that this sort of joke had been played between him and the News-Examiner sports editor Kris Freeman three times before. None of those three pranks had made it into the newspaper.
The former reporter, who was fired on the morning the article was published, said: “This is a tragic thing that occurred. … Absolute gazillion-to-one odds that something like this could happen. It was bad taste, poor judgment, and it's unbelievable that it would slip by.”
Now 28, DeLeonibus said he knew Dixon personally and thought highly of him, and—as he expressed in his written apology in the paper—most people would understand that this was only a joke. Nevertheless, DeLeonibus said, “This was horrible for any kid.”
DeLeonibus does not plan to pursue a career in journalism, but he said that if he were ever offered a job in the profession: “I'd be the safest reporter in the newsroom.”
During the eight-day trial, plaintiffs' attorneys said the “joke” was filled with “the most outrageous, violent, filthy language ever printed in American mainstream news media.”
“Libel [law] isn't intended primarily to make someone with hurt feelings feel better; it's designed for people whose reputations have been damaged,” said Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Kirtley said the incident is strikingly similar to a situation involving the school newspaper at Virginia Tech. Collegiate Times staffers, in a late-night rush to publish, forgot to remove the phony title “Director of Butt-Licking” from a display quote, set in large type, identifying administrator Sharon Yeagle.
Yeagle, assistant to the vice president for student affairs, responded by filing an $850,000 defamation suit against the paper. But both a trial court and the state Supreme Court said the offending phrase could not be taken literally or seriously by a reasonable reader.
“The phrase is disgusting, offensive, and in extremely bad taste, but it cannot reasonably be understood as stating an actual fact about Yeagle's job title or her conduct, or that she committed a crime of moral turpitude,” Justice Elizabeth B. Lacy wrote in the majority opinion issued last month.
“There's no way to say that this kind of thing could have caused [Yeagle] harm,” Kirtley said.
“The critical issue” in Dixon v. News-Examiner “is, would any reasonable person believe that these quotes were actually attributed to” Lassiter? Kirtley asked. “And then, how were [Dixon and Lassiter] really harmed by it?”
Dixon's attorney, Clinton Kelly, offered some insight to the nature of the harm caused by the article.
Kelly said that during the morning that the article ran in the paper, school officials received multiple phone calls demanding the dismissal of then-coach Lassiter because they believed that he made the remarks disparaging Dixon.
“When I first heard about this case,” Kelly said, “I thought, 'Who is Bubba Dixon, and how has this affected him?'
“At the time, Bubba was at a tender age, developing his manhood. Peer pressure and standing among your peers is very important. This article embarrassed Bubba. It led readers to believe he was a homosexual … a pervert, and he's definitely not,” Kelly said.
He said that the “conservative” jury awarded his client damages because some people will continue to link Dixon with that article.
“People will say — 15 to 20 years from now — that even though he's been cleared of charges, Richard Jewell must have had something to do with the Olympic bombing in Atlanta, otherwise the FBI would have never pointed their finger at him. … And, people will always associate Bubba's name with that article.”
Hopefully, Kelly said, this verdict will have an effect on the News-Examiner and “their proofreaders will start doing their job.”
“This newsroom was out of control,” Kelly said. “They engaged in a pattern of misconduct and horseplay. This was the inevitable product, and they deserve to be punished!”
Attorneys for the newspaper could not be reached for comment. When asked if there will be an appeal, the paper's publisher, Bob Atkins, said: “No comment.”
Kirtley suggested that if the paper appeals, the next ruling might be in favor of the newspaper.
“The point is that if the quotes were that outrageous, an appeals court would most likely reverse the decision concluding that no reasonable person would draw the conclusion that this could be taken as truthful,” Kirtley explained.