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Court Rules Tabloid Committed Libel by Repeating Book's Claim

By Maura Dolan
Los Angeles Times

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 media, 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 $1.175 million libel verdict. Khalid Khawar, a grape and citrus farmer, was a private figure, and the media are not protected from libel 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 public controversies involving persons 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, his son's car and the family home were vandalized and his middle son, who was then in eighth grade, was beaten at school.