Roundup: Reporter arrested as WTO protest anniversary turns ugly

Thursday, December 7, 2000

An Associated Press reporter covering a demonstration in Seattle to mark last year's World Trade Organization riots was among 140 people arrested. The reporter, Gene Johnson, said that during the Nov. 30 demonstration, a police lieutenant ordered protesters several times to disperse although they were hemmed in on four sides by officers. Johnson was released on personal recognizance early the following morning after being charged with pedestrian interference and failure to disperse. Dale Leach, bureau chief for the AP in Seattle, said the news cooperative was working to have the charges against Johnson dismissed. “This is a reporter who was doing his job, who heard the order to disperse only after police made it impossible to leave and who, in fact, sought and was denied permission to leave before the arrests began,” Leach said. The commemoration began lightheartedly, but protesters later threw rocks and bottles and were seen carrying bottles of gasoline, police said. A police captain injured in the eye by a thrown object was treated at a hospital and released. When some 200 demonstrators refused to disperse, police used pepper spray and began arresting participants. Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske said the arrests came an hour after officers ordered demonstrators to disperse. But reporters, demonstrators and observers for groups monitoring police said officers penned in and arrested people who were trying to leave, including some shoppers who wandered in by mistake. Associated Press

Utah: Jury awards doctor $2.2 million in suit against TV station

A jury has awarded a doctor $2.2 million, ruling a series of television news stories by a reporter posing as a patient seeking diet drugs defamed him. The stories aired by KTVX of Salt Lake City in 1995 and 1996 alleged that Dr. Michael H. Jensen violated laws and regulations when he prescribed Fen-Phen to reporter Mary Sawyers. Jensen said the stories cost him his job and subjected him to social ridicule. After a monthlong trial, the Utah County jury said Dec. 1 the stories defamed the former family practitioner and cast him in a false light. The jury also found that Sawyers and United Television, owners of KTVX, violated Jensen's privacy when Sawyers took a hidden camera into an examination room of Jensen's clinic in July 1995. The jurors consider punitive damages this week. Sawyers and the station are expected to appeal the verdict. Associated Press

New York: Fox, NBC re-evaluate participation in VNS

Fox News Channel and NBC said they are re-evaluating their participation in Voter News Service, the consortium formed to provide exit polling data to help call elections. Fox said in a statement Nov. 29 it “intends not to renew its contract … unless adequate information is supplied regarding misinformation presented on Election Day.” Fox said it is exploring other polling options for future elections. NBC said it would not renew its membership “until it is satisfied that VNS has taken the steps needed to ensure the accuracy and integrity of its data.” But NBC said it is ready to provide additional funding to accomplish this. VNS was set up by ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC and the Associated Press to share election costs. Using VNS data, television networks twice projected winners in Florida on election night — once for Al Gore, once for George W. Bush — only to take those calls back. The AP also called the state for Gore on Nov. 7 but was the only one of the six members not to declare Bush the winner early Nov. 8. The call for Gore came after polls had closed in most of Florida, but not in some western sections of the state. That has infuriated congressional Republicans, who question whether TV projections discourage people from voting. NBC on Nov. 29 became the third network to promise not to project election-night winners in a state until all the state's polls are closed. NBC's previous policy was not to call a state winner until the “overwhelming majority” of polls there had closed. Since the election, the Associated Press, ABC and Fox News Channel have also said they would no longer project winners in a state until all its polls are closed. NBC said it supports legislation that would institute a national poll-closing time. CNN and the AP have said they are reviewing VNS' performance. ABC wants outside experts to look at the company; CBS would not comment on VNS. Associated Press

Indiana: Federal appeals court hears oral arguments in violent video game case

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Nov. 30 on the city of Indianapolis' violent video games ordinance. The coin-operated video game industry filed the appeal in October after a federal judge declared the ordinance legal. The City-County Council passed the ordinance July 10, and it was to go into effect Sept. 1. But the American Amusement Machine Association and the Amusement and Music Operators Association, along with a group of Indiana distributors and operators, filed suit against the city in August. They argued that the ordinance's restriction on games with “graphic violence” were content-based restrictions on speech, in violation of the First Amendment. They also contended that the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague. The ordinance — believed to be the first of its kind — requires coin-operated games featuring graphic violence or strong sexual content to have warning labels, be kept at least 10 feet from any non-violent game machines, and be separated by a curtain or wall so minors cannot view them. The law bars people under the age of 18 from such games unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. Businesses can be fined $200 per day for violations and three violations in one year could cost a business its amusement location license. Scott Chinn, attorney for the city of Indianapolis, said Nov. 30 that there was no indication when the court would issue a ruling. Associated Press

Maryland: Top lawmakers object to closing court records

A proposal by the state court system to restrict public access to criminal records has drawn strong opposition from Maryland's two top lawmakers. House Speaker Casper Taylor, D-Allegany, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George's, said they will, if necessary, back legislation to override any excessive restrictions that might be imposed by the Court of Appeals. Their comments came during a Nov. 30 meeting in Washington with editors and reporters of The Washington Post. The state courts are considering eliminating most public access to a computer system that allows individuals and companies that pay a $50 annual fee to pull up criminal records on their computers. Records would still be available at courthouses, but the proposal would allow court clerks to set a limit of 10 documents a day per person. A hearing on the proposed policy change is scheduled for Dec. 13 in Annapolis. The Court of Appeals will make a decision next year. Julia Andrew, an assistant attorney general for the judicial system, said court officials are fearful that information which should not be public is included in the court records. Court clerks would know not to give out those records, but there is no such screening of computer access, she said. Under the proposed Maryland system, Andrew said some civil court records would still be available through a dial-up computer system, but that access would be at the discretion of the court information officer and might be considerably more limited than under the current system. Tom Marquardt, managing editor of The (Annapolis) Capital, said he is worried about provisions of the policy that require people who seek information to justify their need for it. The current system has about 3,000 subscribers, and many of them are unhappy with the proposed change. Subscribers currently use the Internet to check on criminal records of applicants for such jobs as bank tellers, child care workers and cleaning service employees. Associated Press

West Virginia: Court establishes standards for access to state police records

The state Supreme Court on Dec. 1 ruled that state police may be compelled to produce personnel and other documents in a police brutality case, setting a standard on how law enforcement records are subject to review. In a unanimous decision, the court authorized the opening of records in litigation and ruled that circuit judges may review law enforcement documents and delete confidential information not related to a lawsuit. The judge would decide whether to make records public. Attorneys for both sides praised the ruling. The decision “balances the interests of the plaintiffs with the interests of the State Police when plaintiffs are trying to get access to personnel files and internal investigations,” said Ancil Ramey, a Charleston lawyer representing the police. The ruling, written by retiring Justice George Scott, said records of an internal affairs division of a law enforcement agency may be sought in legal action against police if a judge determines that the need for the material outweighs the public interest in maintaining confidentiality. Police are required to establish a “substantial threshold” showing that damage is likely to result from disclosure. The justices ruled that exceptions to the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act were not intended to shield law enforcement documents from legitimate demands by lawyers for inspection of documents. The Supreme Court returned the case to Mercer County Circuit Court, where a lawsuit alleges abuse by a trooper. Associated Press

Wisconsin: Trial needed in student-fee case, judge says

A federal judge ruled Dec. 5 that a trial was needed to determine what discretion the University of Wisconsin System has in doling out student fees to campus organizations. In his decision, U.S. District Court Judge John C. Shabaz denied motions for summary judgment by both the students who sued the university and the system, clearing the way for the case to go to trial today. The case is a continuation of a suit brought by several students over the university's mandatory student-fee system, which they claimed forced them to support political and ideological groups with which they disagree. Shabaz also dismissed several plaintiffs from the case, including Scott Southworth, one of the original students in the case. He ruled they don't have standing to sue because they are no longer students and don't pay the fees, meaning they can't suffer any injuries. Associated Press

Oklahoma: Appeals court denies groups' petition to join case

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals turned down a request from organizations asking to argue against Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy's removal from the Oklahoma City bombing case. The Oklahoma Press Association and FOI Oklahoma Inc. filed a friend-of-the-court brief last week, which the judges have denied. “This court appreciates the interest and concern of these groups,” the judges said in their ruling. “However, in order to expedite the proceedings in this matter, their motions are denied.” Macy is appealing a judge's decision to remove him and his assistants from the prosecution of Terry Nichols in a state murder case. Associated Press

Michigan: Another man faces charges under anti-cursing law

Another Michigan man has run afoul of a century-old law that prohibits cursing in the presence of women and children. Jeffery Richards, 27, was scheduled for a pretrial hearing Dec. 4 on charges of assault, disturbing the peace and using indecent language. Earlier this year a judge ruled that the 102-year-old law is constitutional, and upheld the conviction of another man who swore in front of children after tumbling out of a canoe. Richards is accused of using foul language in front of children on a school bus on Nov. 2. Richards said he used a mild profanity, and only because he believed his daughter was being manhandled and verbally abused by the driver. But Lake City Area Schools' Superintendent Lew Burchard said Richards used stronger language than he claimed and verbally threatened the driver. He shouted other obscenities from the front of the bus, Burchard said. He added that Richards' allegation that his daughter was manhandled by the bus driver was unfounded. Richards could face up to 90 days in jail if convicted. Associated Press

Wisconsin: Task force recommends amending open-records law

A task force says the Legislature should amend Wisconsin's open records law because a state Supreme Court ruling has made it too confusing. The confusion has prompted city attorneys across the state to delay or refuse requests for records and documents that once were easily obtained by the public and news media. The attorneys have become more fearful of potential lawsuits since the state's high court ruled in 1999 that they must consider whether the release of government records could jeopardize the privacy or reputation of public employees. In its report to Gov. Tommy Thompson, a 24-member task force said the court's ruling has made implementation of the law cumbersome and has created a result contrary to the law's intent. The task force's report was delivered to Thompson's office a few weeks ago. He could include the recommendations in his next budget bill to be submitted early next year. The state Supreme Court's 4-3 decision, in July 1999, involved the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's efforts to obtain Milwaukee public schools' records on criminal background checks of its employees. The court ruled public employees may ask a judge to block the release of government records if the records invade the employees' privacy or jeopardize their reputations. Record keepers also must give employees the opportunity to go to court to prevent the release of such information. While the court ruling dealt only with public employees, most municipal officials have interpreted the ruling more broadly to avoid potential lawsuits. Associated Press

California: Judge again bars cameras from SLA fugitive trial

A judge in Los Angeles reiterated his ban on cameras in the courtroom during the trial of former Symbionese Liberation Army fugitive Sara Jane Olson, who is charged with trying to kill police officers with nail-packed bombs 25 years ago. On Dec. 1, Superior Court Judge James M. Ideman rejected a renewed request by Court TV to televise the trial. The St. Paul, Minn., woman is accused of conspiring to plant bombs under a Los Angeles Police Department patrol car and a police civil service worker's car in 1975. Neither bomb exploded. The judge, who ruled in January that there would be no live coverage, said Dec. 1 that witnesses may be intimidated by the presence of television cameras. Ideman said his concern was heightened after the names and addresses of two people allegedly targeted by the bombs turned up on Olson's Web site. Deputy District Attorney Michael Latin argued against opening the courtroom to cameras, saying “security is a real issue in our case.” Defense lawyer Shawn Chapman spoke in favor of cameras. Olson, formerly known as Kathleen Ann Soliah, was arrested in June 1999 in St. Paul after television's “America's Most Wanted” publicized her case. She was freed in July 1999 after posting $1 million bond. Associated Press

Maryland: Federal judge to decide Confederate flag fight

The Justice Department says flying a confederate flag over the federally tended remains of Confederate soldiers could be viewed as government endorsement of racial intolerance. Justice Department attorney W. Scott Simpson made the argument Nov. 30 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Simpson is defending the Department of Veterans Affairs in a fight over Confederate flag-waving at Point Lookout Confederate Cemetery in St. Mary's County. The cemetery is near the Point Lookout prisoner-of-war camp, where several thousand Confederate soldiers died. Many are buried in a mass grave at the cemetery. The lawsuit was filed by Patrick J. Griffin III, a Montgomery County man descended from a Point Lookout prisoner. His complaint alleges the government is violating constitutional rights to free speech by restricting display of the flag. Michael Wright, one of Griffin's lawyers, said flying the flag honors the dead. A cemetery attendant began flying the flag at Point Lookout in 1994, but Veterans Affairs ordered it taken down after higher-ranking VA officials took notice. VA said a policy adopted in 1995 allows the Confederate flag to be flown at its cemeteries only on Memorial Day, and, in states where it is observed, Confederate Memorial Day. U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson did not say when he will rule. Associated Press

Tennessee: State appeals court reverses dismissal of libel suit

The Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled Nov. 30 that a judge erred in dismissing a $1.3 million libel suit filed by a state lawmaker against The Lebanon Democrat. Republican Rep. Mae Beavers and her husband sued after the newspaper, in an article and editorial, alluded to rumors the couple were spotted tearing down campaign signs before the August 1998 election. Chancellor Tom Gray ruled Nov. 17, 1999, that the paper did not libel the couple because there was no malice, the article was “substantially true,” and the editorial included no false defamatory statements and was a non-actionable “expression of opinion.” Beavers' appeal did not include any mention of the article, focusing instead on the editorial, which read in part: “But what about the behavior that some of our most 'respectable' candidates exhibited during the political season? … Even the petty act of sign stealing. (In fact, one prominent elected official narrowly escaped arrest for tearing down signs on election eve — and they didn't even have an opponent! It was just sheer personal spite.)” Appeals Court Judge Alan E. Highers wrote on behalf of the three-member panel that there are “genuine issues of material fact regarding whether newspaper acted with actual malice … and whether the article itself was mere opinion. Specifically, we find that there are material issues of fact regarding whether newspaper acted with reckless disregard for the truth of the incident.” The case returns to the trial court. Associated Press

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