Supreme Court sends several First Amendment cases packing

Monday, October 7, 2002

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court today turned away a host of First Amendment cases, dealing losses to Frank Sinatra Jr., the Green Party's Ralph Nader, former Olympic security guard Richard Jewell, and a South Carolina tattoo artist, among others.

Their cases were among more than a thousand that justices refused to consider as they returned to work after a three-month break. The Court only hears arguments in 80 or so cases each year.

The high court refused to hear Sinatra's appeal, which was seeking to reverse a decision by the California Supreme Court that struck down the state's “Son of Sam” law.

The case involves profits from the story of the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra's teenage son nearly 40 years ago.

Frank Sinatra Jr. was snatched from a Lake Tahoe, Nev., hotel in 1963, and released unharmed after his family paid a $240,000 ransom. Three men were arrested and convicted.

The younger Sinatra lost a court battle in California over profits from a planned movie about the crime, and asked the high court to step in. The justices refused to review the state high court's decision striking down the California law. The law was intended to prevent convicts from profiting from books, movies or other representations of their crimes. The 1983 law was similar to victims' rights laws passed by 40 states and the federal government. Sinatra v. Keenan, 01-1730.

The Supreme Court today also:

  • Declined to hear an appeal by supporters of Ralph Nader who claimed Ohio erred when it refused to allow the consumer rights activist to identify himself as a Green Party candidate on the 2000 presidential ballot.

    The decision upholds a Jan. 3 ruling by a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

    The Green Party and Nader argued that keeping the party's designation off the ballot violated their constitutional rights of free speech, free association and equal protection of law.

    They also said the state's refusal denied voters the opportunity to be informed which lesser-known candidates were running with third-party endorsements, such as the Green Party.

    Ohio officials argued that the state has authority to impose reasonable requirements for ballot listings to ensure orderly, fair elections.

    Attorneys for Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, the state's elections officer, said the Legislature has reasonable requirements for ballot party listing. Ohio requires a party or candidate to obtain petition signatures equal to 1% of the number of people who voted in the state's last election for governor.

    Nader and Green Party officials failed to meet that requirement for the 2000 election, Blackwell said. Backers of Nader and running mate Winona LaDuke collected only enough signatures to put them on the ballot as independents, he said.

    Nader, running as the candidate for the pro-environment, anti-corporate Green Party, got 3% of the national vote in 2000. Nader v. Blackwell, 02-81.

  • Turned away an appeal from Richard Jewell, who claims he was defamed by a newspaper that reported he was a suspect in the 1996 bombing at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta.

    The Court's refusal to hear the case clears the way for a state court to consider a motion for dismissal of Jewell's lawsuit.

    Even if the case moves forward to trial, Jewell must prove The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was acting with actual malice when he was identified as the focus of a police investigation into the bombing.

    Jewell said he was targeted by the newspaper and other news media when they used anonymous law enforcement sources to report he was the focus of the investigation.

    “Many of the statements that were reported in the Journal-Constitution, Richard Jewell has himself admitted to be true,” said Peter Canfield, the newspaper's attorney. “He has admitted that he was the focus of the investigation. He has admitted he believed that law enforcement believed he planted this bomb.”

    The Supreme Court's refusal to hear the appeal lets stand a decision that found Jewell made himself a public figure through media interviews following the bombing.

    It's more difficult for public figures to win libel lawsuits because they must prove actual malice — not just negligence. To prove actual malice, Jewell must not only show the newspaper printed inaccuracies, but also that it knew or suspected the information to be false.

    “Holding Richard Jewell to the status of public figure is not only an injustice to Richard but threatens the reputations of any private citizen who is discussed by a member of the media,” said Lin Wood, Jewell's attorney.

    Jewell was considered a hero after spotting the backpack that held the bomb that exploded early July 27, 1996, killing one woman and injuring 111 people during the Atlanta Olympics.

    Three days later, the Journal-Constitution reported that federal officials were investigating Jewell, leading to international media scrutiny of the security guard. He was cleared by the FBI three months later.

    In the lawsuit filed in January 1997, Jewell claimed the newspaper articles portrayed him as a strange person who was probably guilty of setting off the bomb.

    A state court in 1999 ruled that Jewell was a public figure because he had been interviewed by the media about his hero's role.

    “When you have someone making repeated appearances on local, national and international media about this park being safe, it's relevant and important for the public to know that that person is the focus of a law enforcement investigation into the bombing,” Canfield said.

    The Supreme Court also let stand a state appeals court ruling that two of the newspaper's reporters wouldn't have to reveal confidential law enforcement sources.

    ABC, NBC, CNN and Piedmont College, his former employer, settled similar lawsuits Jewell filed against them.

    Jewell was hired by the Senoia Police Department in March, but his employment ended Sept. 19. City Manager Murray McAfee declined further comment. Jewell v. Cox Enterprises, 01-1627.

  • Refused to consider whether people have a right to give or get tattoos. The Court refused to address the subject in an appeal by a South Carolina tattoo artist challenging his state's prohibition on tattooing.

    Two states — South Carolina and Oklahoma — forbid getting body inscriptions there but allow residents to go to other states to get their body parts decorated.

    South Carolinian Ronald White was prosecuted for giving a tattoo on a television news program. White then challenged the ban, arguing that he had a First Amendment right to practice his art.

    He was backed by tattoo and free-speech groups and a curator at the American Museum of National History who told the Court that tattooing dates back to early humans and has been used most recently by survivors of the terrorist attacks.

    The justices without comment left undisturbed a lower court ruling against White, who must pay $500 for illegal tattooing.

    “In a free society, this is intolerable,” White's attorney, former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, had told justices in a filing.

    South Carolina argued that White could use non-permanent materials like body paint or henna, with no health risks. Its 36-year-old ban allows doctors to tattoo a patient before surgery. White v. South Carolina, 01-1859.

  • Declined to decide whether Massachusetts is wrongly restricting target shooting at human images.

    The ban at some gun clubs includes human forms or likenesses of people like Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. It's the only prohibition of its kind, and the challengers argued they had a free-speech right to shoot at human pictures.

    The Court refused to review the 4-year-old Massachusetts law. The ban applies to gun clubs that have a special license for large-capacity weapons.

    State officials argued that they had a public safety reason for preventing the practice shooting. They also said that the Court should not waste its time on a matter that affects only residents in one state.

    The law was challenged by a group that includes gun clubs, a minister and a retired military officer who competes in wheelchair shooting events.

    “There are far more gun owners in the Commonwealth who would like to shoot at a target of Osama bin Laden than there are persons who burn the American flag,” their attorney, Stephen Halbrook, told justices.

    The Supreme Court in the 1990 case U.S. v. Eichman overturned a federal statute designed to allow the government to punish persons who burn U.S. flags. The Court said that the law was intended to punish people for political expression. Gun Owners' Action League v. Swift, 01-1879.

  • Declined to decide whether the government violated the free-speech rights of an electrician who started a radio station for homosexual listeners without getting a license.

    Jerry Szoka had been fined $11,000 and ordered to shut down the station he operated in a nightclub in Cleveland, Ohio. He challenged the one-time ban on small FM stations like his.

    Over the years, people like Szoka, unhappy with channel selections, have started their own unlicensed stations on empty frequencies. The Federal Communications Commission spent years trying to shut some of them.

    The FCC rewrote the rules in 2000 to allow some low power stations. Grid Radio v. Federal Communications Commission, 01-1662.

  • Refused to consider a Kentucky school district's case over its firing of a fifth-grade teacher who invited actor Woody Harrelson to tell her students about the merits of industrial hemp. The Court's refusal means there will be a trial for Donna Cockrel to prove she was wrongly fired. Shelby County School District v. Cockrel, 01-1548.

  • Refused to second-guess its West Virginia counterpart's decision to restore a lawsuit filed by Charlotte Pritt, the 1996 Democratic candidate for governor, against Republican groups. The Republican National Committee had petitioned the nation's highest court in March, seeking to scuttle Pritt's defamation case. That petition was rejected. West Virginia's Supreme Court ruled 5-0 in December that a jury should decide whether TV and radio ads from the GOP-funded Victory Committee libeled Pritt during the 1996 campaign. Pritt alleges the ads cast her legislative record in a false light. Her lawsuit said voters were falsely told that she “proposed teaching first-graders about condoms,” and voted to “permit the sale of pornographic videos to children” and “allow convicted drug-abusers to work in our public schools,” the lawsuit said. Pritt contends the ads contributed to her loss to Republican Cecil Underwood.
  • Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,