Sons of Arkansas governor file libel suit against alternative newspaper
|Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee|
But the family of Gov. Mike Huckabee says it's the alternative Little Rock
newspaper that needs to improve.
In its May 12-25 issue, the biweekly Free Press published its regular guest column,
“The Herbal Tea Party.” In the column, author Jack Page — president of the
Arkansas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws —
criticized the mainstream media for biased reporting on the
marijuana-legalization debate. As an example, he said that a son of Huckabee had
been “caught with cannabis in his school locker.” He said the media had ignored
the incident and that school officials had imposed only “a token punishment” on
the young Huckabee.
Page is not an employee of the Free Press and does not receive
compensation for the column.
Both of the governor's sons, David, 18, and John Mark, 22, are now suing the
Free Press, charging it with libel in Pulaski County Circuit Court. They
say they have never smoked marijuana, and they accuse the Free Press of
acting “with reckless disregard for the truth.”
Dorothy “Dotty” Oliver, publisher of the newspaper, defends the article and
claims to know students at David's former high school who will confirm her story
in court. “We have never done unsubstantiated charges against anyone,” she
Oliver, who is represented by attorney David Lewis of Little Rock, plans to
invoke free-press rights in her defense. While she said that she did not necessarily agree with the content of
Page's article, “I stand behind his right to say it.”
The Free Press did not specify which of Huckabee's two sons was involved. Oliver says this is because she mistakenly thought Huckabee had only one son. Regardless, David's record has come under the closest scrutiny, because John Mark was already in college when Huckabee became governor in 1996. But both sons are suing, saying that their reputations have suffered equally. (Editor's note: The original posted version of this First Amendment Center article reported that the Huckabee son was unnamed because the Free Press didn't know which of the two was involved. That information was published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette; Oliver later said the report was incorrect.)
About a month after the article was published, Huckabee held a news
conference in which he defended his children, saying “the allegations in the
local tabloid are false, they are baseless, and they are malicious.
“For the same reason I would not sit back and allow someone to shoot, stab,
hit with a blunt object or molest one of my children, I am not going to sit back
and allow someone to falsely and recklessly and maliciously accuse my children
of behavior in which they have not engaged,” Huckabee said.
Defending the integrity of her paper, Oliver wrote in the July 8-21 edition,
“The city has acknowledged that my writers always get their facts straight when
reporting on community issues. I have a file full of letters thanking me for
coverage of community events. I am very proud of what I do.”
Little Rock attorney Kevin Crass is representing the Huckabees. On June 25,
he released David's high school disciplinary file, which records only two minor
infractions. David was cited once for excessive talking in class and once for
carrying a pager.
However, according to Little Rock School District Communications Specialist
Zeornee Herts, drug offenses may be purged from student records if students
Meanwhile, debate continues in Little Rock over whether or not a public
official's family should be covered by the media. Jim Harris, the governor's
spokesman, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that “when Bill Clinton was
governor, Chelsea was considered off-limits. … [R]ules are changed for the
Oliver argues that reporters throughout the country have noticed the behavior
of the Huckabee children. “That kid's been trashed in every media in town,” she
said of David. Oliver says that the Free Press has ignored much of what she
calls the “hack” journalism of some reporters.
She criticized what she called “preferential treatment” of David Huckabee
during his time at Parkview High School, a magnet school in Little Rock. “Other
kids got expelled” for possession of marijuana, she told the Democrat-Gazette. “That upsets me. Some kids get treated differently.”
No trial date has been set in the defamation lawsuit.