For 88 days, Richard Jewell was one of the most carefully
watched men in the United States.
Reporters staked out his apartment. Cameras remained trained on his front door. Sometimes, scenes as innocent as Jewell climbing into the driver's seat of his car after wading through hordes of reporters led the nightly TV news.
Now, Jewell, formally cleared last week in the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park in July, wants his persecutors to pay.
His lawyers say that they're readying lawsuits against an Atlanta newspaper, NBC, NBC's news anchorman Tom Brokaw and possibly the FBI. Allegations of libel and invasion of privacy are likely. But even if Jewell's treatment at the hands of news organizations and law enforcement agencies was impolite, legal experts say it is unlikely that translates into a winning lawsuit.
"Richard Jewell's best bet for gaining income from this suit is to run to the tabloids he's complaining about," says Irwin R. Kramer, a Baltimore lawyer who handles freedom of speech cases. "They'll pay him for his story -- a court of law won't."
Jewell's situation highlights an area of the law where personal privacy and the public's right to know inevitably clash. It also points out the law's distinction between a person judged to be in the limelight and one who isn't.
A court ultimately will decide into which category Jewell fits. If a court decides he is a public figure, as legal experts predict, he has much less chance of proving that he was wronged.
He needs to prove that he was libeled -- that a publication or broadcast injured his reputation. That issue is defined by a landmark Supreme Court decision, New York Times vs. Sullivan. Before that case, in 1964, people stood a good chance of winning their libel suits if they proved that information reported about them was false. But with the Sullivan case, the court laid out a rigorous, two-part test for proving libel in cases involving public figures.
In such cases, the court held, a person must prove not only that reports about him are false, but that those who published them acted with "actual malice" -- that is, that they knew the reports were false or published it with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.
Jewell's lawyers may argue that their client, an obscure security guard before the Olympic bombing, isn't a public figure. But that argument isn't likely to sway a court, say legal experts.
As the person who discovered the bomb moments before it exploded -- and then reportedly offered himself as a guest on a network news program -- his circum- stances are very clear, they say.
"Jewell sought the limelight," says Gary Bostwick, a prominent libel lawyer in Santa Monica, Calif. "Once you do that, you can't take a step back and argue, 'I didn't choose this, therefore I am a private figure.' "
If Jewell sues the FBI, he faces even longer odds. Government agencies are immune from lawsuits, except in very limited circumstances.
At a news conference Monday, Jewell said he planned to sue several news organizations that reported he was a suspect in the July 27 bombing that killed one person and injured 111. He named the Atlanta Journal, which published an "extra" edition July 30, playing the Jewell story under this front-page headline: "FBI suspects 'hero' guard may have planted bomb."
If the Journal's story was based on information from the FBI or other official sources, say libel lawyers, Jewell's case against the newspaper is weak.
"If we start holding newspapers responsible for accurately reporting information provided to them by public officials, we should proceed at our own peril," says Lee Levine, a Washington lawyer who represents news media companies in First Amendment cases.
But Bostwick, a lawyer who represents individuals who file libel cases, says Jewell's attorney would do well to press the Journal to reveal the anonymous sources that supplied information for the Jewell stories. Depending on who the source is, Bostwick says, the newspaper may have had an inkling that the information was less than reliable.
"I don't have to accept that they relied upon 'reliable sources,' " says Bostwick, whose clients include author Janet Malcolm and baseball player Steve Garvey. "If I sue them, they should have to tell me."
And a Georgia statute about "privileged communications" would seemingly give Jewell ammunition to force Journal editors to reveals the newspaper's source. Under the state law, the Journal is immune from legal action -- even if the story is false -- if the source of its story is a law enforcement official. Still, the Journal would have to reveal the source to gain the protection, something it presumably would be loath to do.
Under another state statute, a "shield" law, the Journal may be compelled to reveal its source anyway, if the identity is considered "material and relevant" to the case, among other things.
Several lawyers predict Jewell's best chances in court may be related to invasion of privacy.