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California and the West

Tabloid That Repeated False Charge Held Liable

Court: State justices uphold ruling that newspaper defamed farmer in Robert Kennedy assassination case.

November 03, 1998|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — In a widely watched media case, the California Supreme Court decided Monday that the Globe, a supermarket tabloid, defamed a Bakersfield farmer by repeating a book's false charge that the man was the real assassin of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

The tabloid, backed by many mainstream news media organizations, had argued that if it accurately and neutrally reported charges being made in a book or other public controversy, it should not be held liable.

But the high court disagreed, unanimously upholding a $1.2-million libel verdict. Khalid Khawar, a grape and citrus farmer, was a private figure, and the media are not protected from libel charges when they repeat defamatory information about private people in otherwise neutral reporting, the court ruled.

The book in question sold only 500 copies before its publisher withdrew it after Khawar sued. The Globe sold 2.7 million copies of the tabloid containing its report.

"There are certainly occasions when in a heated public controversy, charges are being leveled and the media would be remiss in failing to report to the public that those allegations are being made, even when the media do not think they are true," said San Francisco lawyer Joshua Koltun, whose firm, Steinhart & Falconer, represented several media organizations in the case.

But the court said such reports would rarely benefit the public when the allegations are against a private individual.

"On the other hand, the report of such accusations can have a devastating effect on the reputation of the accused individual, who has not voluntarily elected to encounter an increased risk of defamation and who may lack sufficient media access to counter the accusations," wrote Justice Joyce L. Kennard.

The ruling is likely to make the media more cautious when reporting on controversies involving people who could conceivably be viewed as private rather than public figures, Koltun said.

Khawar, who farms 480 acres, said he decided to file a lawsuit about the Globe's 1989 report only after his family received death threats, one son's car and the family home were vandalized, and his middle son, who was then in eighth grade, was beaten at school.

"The only good thing that came out of this case is because of it, my middle son is studying law," said Khawar, a native of Pakistan who is now a U.S. citizen and has lived in California for 36 years.

"I am very happy," Khawar said, adding that he expects to win if the Globe appeals the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which the publication probably will do.

"I would still like it to go to the U.S. Supreme Court so they will not be able to do this kind of thing to other people," he said.

Khawar, 59, was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Kennedy was killed in 1968. He was working as a photographer that night for a Pakistani periodical. He stood on a podium near Kennedy, trying to get a good photograph of the senator and hoping also that a friend would photograph him with Kennedy for a personal memento.

In the 1988 book "The Senator Must Die: The Murder of Robert Kennedy," former CIA contract agent Robert Morrow wrote that the Iranian secret police and the Mafia assassinated Kennedy, not Sirhan Sirhan, who was convicted of the murder.

The book identified the killer as a young Pakistani who wore a gold-colored sweater on the night of the killing and carried a gun concealed as a camera. Although the book got Khawar's name wrong, it contained four photographs of him in a group of people around Kennedy shortly before the murder.

The Globe repeated the allegations in a report about the book and enlarged one of the book's photographs so that Khawar could be identified. No one from the Globe had contacted Khawar for a comment.

After a friend told Khawar of the tabloid article, he said he initially decided to say nothing because he did not want his wife to know. "I thought she would be scared," he said.

In addition to suing the Globe after his family was threatened, Khawar also sued Morrow and Roundtable Publishing Inc., which had published the book. Roundtable apologized, withdrew the books and gave most of the 25,000 that had been printed to Khawar in a settlement. In addition to the 500 copies that had sold, the publisher had distributed 150 copies to various media, but only the Globe published a report about the book.

Morrow was dismissed from the case because he had not identified Khawar by his true name, and Khawar could not be identified in the book's photographs.

The Globe, however, by enlarging the picture of Khawar and adding an arrow that identified him as the assassin, was found to have committed libel.

In appealing the verdict, the Globe was joined by the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, CBS, NBC and ABC and other media. The organizations argued that the media should be legally protected if they repeat untrue allegations in a public controversy as long as the reporting of the charges is accurate and objective.

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