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Legal Weirdness: Newspaper Owner Sues Journalist

Editor & Publisher reports that Wendy McCaw, the eccentric owner of the Santa Barbara (California) News-Press, isn’t just presiding over the meltdown of a newspaper. She’s suing a freelance journalist who wrote about her activities, claiming an American Journalism Review article was defamatory.

Needless to say, people familiar with journalism and the First Amendment are incredulous. E&P quotes several:

“I am surprised that any publisher would do this,” said Gene Roberts, the legendary former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and part-time instructor at the University of Maryland, where AJR is published. “It’s pretty clear that there is an owner there with no sense and no respect for newspaper traditions and for the First Amendment.”

Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, agreed. “It is outrageous,” he said. “It is especially a betrayal of the principles that most journalists understand for a libel suit of this kind to be filed. It is apparently a grudge.”

David Ardia, who practiced media law and is heading up a soon-to-launch citizen-media law project, is incredulous from a legal perspective. He said in an e-mail:

“It’s unfathomable from so many angles. Can you imagine what a case like this would look like in discovery, as senior editors from the Santa Barbara News-Press are forced to sit for depositions probing whether their publisher is a tyrant? She must be out of her mind.”

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