The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Suing Clint Eastwood Over Richard Jewell Would Be a Pretty Bad Idea

Given that the newspaper defeated a lawsuit from the real Richard Jewell, it should know better.

Olivia Wilde stands in front of some phone booths.
Olivia Wilde as Kathy Scruggs in Richard Jewell. Warner Bros. Pictures

This Friday, Clint Eastwood’s biopic Richard Jewell will be released in theaters. It’s already the subject of controversy, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has hired the prominent lawyer Martin Singer to warn Eastwood, screenwriter Billy Ray, and Warner Bros. that the paper believes the film defames it as well as one of its reporters, played in the film by Olivia Wilde. For First Amendment attorneys, the news of the AJC threatening a lawsuit about Richard Jewell brings back memories of the AJC fighting a lawsuit by Richard Jewell. The lawsuit by Richard Jewell was eventually thrown out; a lawsuit about Richard Jewell should never see the light of day. While lovers of the press may rightly condemn a portrayal of a reporter as trading sex for a story, they should not cheer on one media organization threatening the speech of another.

Richard Jewell saved countless lives on July 27, 1996. He was a hero, but there were no parades, no medals, no proclamations that we often associate with citizens who do heroic deeds. Instead, under the searing glare of the world’s media outlets, already assembled in Atlanta for the Summer Olympics, Jewell turned from hero to villain almost overnight, and a media circus ensued.

Federal and local law enforcement authorities clearly were under pressure to find a suspect. Jewell provided that cover. The only problem was he didn’t do it.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the hometown newspaper of record during the 1996 bombing and remains a journalistic force in the South. In the aftermath of the bombing, the newspaper, whose motto was “Covers Dixie like the Dew,” tenaciously clung to the Jewell story, unmasking any information it could about the suspected security guard.

At one point in the coverage, the newspaper ran a front-page story headlined “FBI Suspects ‘Hero’ Guard May Have Planted Bomb.” The newspaper’s stories also proclaimed that “investigators now say Jewell fits the profile of the lone bomber and they believe he placed the 911 call.”

Within weeks, law enforcement cleared Jewell of suspicion. When the dust settled, Jewell sued multiple news organizations for defamation, many of which quickly settled out of court with the embattled security guard—with one notable exception: the AJC. In fact, the paper continued to fight the case through three levels of the Georgia courts to the United States Supreme Court (which declined to review the case) and back, including long after Jewell’s untimely death in 2007 at the age of 44.

Ultimately, the issue in the case revolved around whether Jewell, an otherwise unknown, temporarily hired security guard, was transformed into a public figure, either involuntarily or for the purposes of the particular events at hand. The trial court found that he was, and the appellate courts in Georgia agreed.

While that may sound like a trivial matter, it makes a world of difference in defamation cases. Private citizens typically only need prove that a news organization was negligent (essentially journalistically careless and sloppy) in its reporting, but public figures need to show that the paper knowingly or recklessly published the false and defamatory story. That’s a purposely high standard because the law safeguarding press freedom provides some “breathing space” for journalists writing about public figures. In most cases, public figures don’t prevail in defamation cases. Richard Jewell did not prevail in his case against the AJC.

It is now the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that is complaining about being unfairly treated in Eastwood’s biopic about Richard Jewell. The newspaper is concerned that its reputation is sullied by the film’s depiction of a rush-to-judgment mentality and its portrayal of the real AJC reporter Kathy Scruggs offering sex to an FBI agent who was a source. (Scruggs died in 2001.) The newspaper says there is no evidence of such activity, as do the authors of a book upon which the movie is based.

Just as the AJC wanted to school Jewell on how the law protects journalists reporting on public figures, Hollywood now needs to school the newspaper on the artistic flexibility filmmakers enjoy when basing fictionalized movies on real events. While biopics often portray real events in people’s lives, not everything in the script is based in fact. If the AJC is unhappy with the newspaper’s portrayal in the film, it has ways to challenge it—its own editorial pages for one—thus applying the age-old First Amendment concept called counterspeech. Its editors could speak out in other forums as well. Instead, in troubling fashion, it opted for the bizarre approach of hiring a noted plaintiff’s attorney from Los Angeles to put pressure on Eastwood. That’s not what we expect from long-established newspapers. They’re almost always on the side of defending the First Amendment rights of content creators—of any sort.

Here’s the quick lesson in all of this. It’s perfectly reasonable to support the AJC’s anger with Richard Jewell for the liberties the film takes in the service of drama and its agenda. But those who value the press should think twice before cheering the paper on in any potential lawsuit. When journalists try to quash speech, even risible speech, no one wins.