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Libel Suit Takes Unusual Twist: Hearst-Owned Book Publishing Firm Given Access to Notes and Phone Records of Newspaper Reporter Who Is Not a Defendant

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Libel Suit Takes Unusual Twist: Hearst-Owned Book Publishing Firm Given Access to Notes and Phone Records of Newspaper Reporter Who Is Not a Defendant

Article excerpt

Libel suit takes unusual twist

Hearst-owned book publishing firm given access to notes and phone records of newspaper reporter who is not a defendant

In a threatening twist to an already bizarre libel suit, a Texas court officer has ordered a reporter who is not named in the case to surrender his notes and phone records.

Pat Guillot, a special master in a state court in Dallas, ordered Dallas Times Herald sportswriter Dan Langendorf to surrender his notes, files and phone bills to a book publisher and author, both of whom are named in a defamation and privacy suit.

The author, former University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer, and book publisher William Morrow & Co. are defending themselves in a $6 million suit filed by Jack Taylor, a former Times Herald reporter now with the Los Angeles Daily News. In the book, Bootlegger's Boy, co-authored by Bud Shrake, Taylor is linked to an alleged plan to plant drugs on an Oklahoma football player.

Though Langendorf is not named in the suit, William Morrow's attorney, Jim George, argued that the reporter held information that is vital to the case and unavailable elsewhere.

The special master agreed, ruling that the evidence sought "does go to the heart" of the defense, which is based on truth. The evidence is "relevant" and the defendants have a "compelling need" for it, he ruled.

His 14-page decision bars the newspaper and reporter from using the First Amendment as a shield from discovery, the legal term for the process of gathering evidence.

The ruling opens phone records from Langendorf's home and office, notes from 1985 through 1989, memoranda and tapes of phone conversations. It allows a judge to examine confidentially the evidence to determine whether it is relevant and should be turned over to the defense.

The master also said that Langendorf, who gave sworn statements in six hours of depositions, must give further depositions.

The decision was approved by a state court judge in Dallas, where the subpoena against the Times Herald was adjudicated. The libel case is pending in state court in Austin.

"We're pleased and we think the master was right," said Morrow attorney Jim George, declining further comment.

The Times Herald vowed to appeal.

"The Times Herald and the reporter feel the master misconstrued the applicable cases and failed to apply the qualified privilege recognized under both Texas and U.S. constitutional law, which should have, in our view, clearly protected these documents," said Times Herald attorney Chip Babcock.

Babcock, who defends media clients from an average of three subpoenas a month, said it was the first time anybody had sought, much less won, access to a reporter's home phone records.

"We frankly don't believe that these documents should be the subject of discovery, regardless of whether this is a newspaper reporter or corporate president or private citizen," Babcock said.

Babcock, whose brief called it "a deep water fishing expedition," said the information being sought was "not relevant to the lawsuit and not reasonably calculated to lead to discovery of admissible evidence. …

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