Tennessee newspaper loses libel lawsuit

Wednesday, April 8, 1998

A Tennessee jury on Tuesday ruled in favor of a former high school student and his former soccer coach in their lawsuit against Gallatin's tri-weekly News-Examiner and its parent company, Gannett Co. Inc.

Garrett “Bubba” Dixon Jr. will receive $500,000 in compensatory damages, while his former coach is set to receive $150,000. The amount of punitive damages was to be decided today.

The two victims of a newsroom prank sued the paper claiming they were defamed by fictitious, sexually explicit quotes falsely attributed to coach Rufus Lassiter.

The libel and negligence suit was brought by the student's father, Garrett Dixon, in March 1997. According to the suit, the newspaper failed to apply “due and reasonable care in the inspection and editing” of a “profane and vulgar” February 1997 article. The fabricated quote charged “Bubba” Dixon, now a freshman at University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, with bestiality and unsanitary habits.

Reporter Nick DeLeonibus testified that there were three separate incidents in which he and sports editor Kris Freeman wrote joking statements about a player and a coach which were edited out of news copy before being published. Similar pranks were a common practice at the News-Examiner, DeLeonibus said.

Freeman, however, was not working at the time and never edited the story. The fictitious quotes remained in the article. The newspaper published a front-page apology the day after the article ran.

Freeman was suspended for three days and put on probation. DeLeonibus was fired after the article was published.

Attorneys for the newspaper argued that Lassiter had not suffered any damage to his reputation, especially since he was promoted to assistant principal months later. Lassiter said that he was advised by his attorney to not issue public comments until after a possible appeal or re-trial.

Lassiter's attorney, William “Butch” Moore, said: “There's always a balance that has to be struck between the First Amendment and the rights of an individual. It's really a never-ending process of how those lines are determined, and when those lines are crossed. In this case, that line was not only crossed but shattered.

“The Constitution does not protect knowingly false articles,” Moore said. “And I'm sure that Thomas Jefferson and the framers [of our Constitution] did not expect freedom of the press to protect the most outrageous, violent, filthy language ever printed in American mainstream news media.”

The paper's publisher, Bob Atkins, refused to comment. But he is quoted in a May 1997 Nashville Banner article, as saying: “At the time, we did everything we could to stop distribution. Since the terrible mistake occurred, we've done everything we could to apologize to the families involved, the coach, the school and the community. We've taken steps to try to help ensure something like this never happens again.”

Attorneys for the newspaper have not stated whether they will appeal the jury's decision.