'Dis' Upheld as Opinion: Courts Dismiss Libel Suit against Paper That Published Pro Basketball Player's Critical Comments about His Former Girlfriend

Article excerpt

BASKETBALL STAR DOMINIQUE Wilkins "dissed" his former girlfriend.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution printed it.

She sued them both for $5 million.

So far, two courts have dismissed her case. A Georgia state court and an appeals court both held that freedom of speech gives the former Atlanta Hawks star, now with the Boston Celtics, the right to express his opinion - unflattering as it was - about Elizabeth Webster, a former girlfriend who gave birth to his daughter out of wedlock after they broke up.

The suit was based on a Sept. 24, 1992, feature about Wilkins and his impending marriage to Nicole Berry, a sales clerk and former model. The account filled the top of a section front and a full inside page and included eight photos, a graphic and a sidebar.

The article, based in part on a visit to Wilkins' home, delved into the continuing entanglements from his past relationships, what staff writer Jim Auchmutey discreetly called Wilkins' "vigorous and varied bachelorhood," during which time he fathered two girls by two women quoted in the story.

Webster and Wilkins had a short relationship but a long and growing history in the courts. A law student when she and the athlete met, Webster sued for paternity, which Wilkins denied before blood tests pointed to him as the father. She later sued for noncompliance with a child support agreement and filed papers accusing Wilkins of sexual battery during visits. He sued her in return for malicious prosecution.

Wilkins' published statement appraised Webster thusly:

"She gives women in general a bad name . . . . I probably shouldn't say this, but I want to take that kid from her. She's unfit to have a kid."

Webster sued and accused Wilkins and the paper's parent company, Cox Enterprises Inc., of defaming her.

The Superior Court determined Wilkins' statement to be opinion, unable to be proved true or false, and therefore constitutionally protected. It dismissed the suit on summary judgment, or before trial.

Webster's appeal argued, "There is no wholesale defamation exemption for anything that might be labeled opinion. To say otherwise would ignore the fact that expressions of opinion often imply an assertion of objective fact."

She said she can prove herself a capable mother under state family law. …