'Public figure' loses libel suit

Judge rules against attorney Edgar Steele in action against newspaper, reporter.

Spokane Spokesman Review/December 8, 2000
By Susan Drumheller

Attorney Edgar Steele has lost his case against The Spokesman-Review and reporter Bill Morlin.

First District Court Judge James Judd ruled Thursday that Steele was a "public figure," and as such had to meet a higher standard of proof to show that he was libeled by a July 23, 1999, article written by Morlin. Furthermore, Judd ruled that Steele failed to show Morlin acted out of malice, falsely reported the facts or intended to inflict emotional distress through his reporting.

The article in question reported that Steele was representing Richard Butler and the Aryan Nations in the civil case filed by Victoria and Jason Keenan. Steele objected to statements in the article that he believed implied he shared the beliefs of Butler, the Aryan Nations or the founders of the 11th Hour Remnant Messenger, a white supremacist group.

Following the article, Steele sued Morlin and The Spokesman-Review, claiming libel, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Judd denied Steele's claims in all three areas in his summary judgment.

"We always felt the article written by Mr. Morlin was accurate," said Spokesman-Review attorney Duane Swinton. Judd agreed, with the exception of a minor fact relating to when Steele moved from California to North Idaho. "Steele has failed to meet his burden of showing that a genuine issue of material fact exists on the issues of falsity and `actual malice,"' Judd wrote.

Steele could not be reached for comment Thursday. Steele tried the case for Butler and the Aryan Nations, who were sued by the Keenans. The Keenans were represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a human rights organization. After a seven-day trial, a jury determined the Aryan Nations and Butler were "grossly negligent" for the actions of three Aryan security guards who assaulted the Keenans in 1998. The jury awarded the Keenans $6.3 million, essentially bankrupting the Aryan Nations and closing down its Hayden Lake compound.

Steele maintained that he was representing Butler not because he shared his beliefs, but because he thought it was an issue of free speech. Morlin reported that viewpoint in his July 1999 story. Through his reporting, Morlin was able to help Spokesman-Review attorneys make the case that Steele was a "limited-purpose" public figure.

Steele defended the Aryans' right to express their beliefs through letters to the editor and in an article posted on the Internet. Steele also was the publisher of the Bonner Examiner, a controversial tabloid that came out before the 1998 local elections.

"Our goal as reporters is to accurately inform our readers what's occurring in their communities," Morlin said Thursday, following the judge's ruling. "I believe I did that here."

The accuracy of the article made the case a strong one for the newspaper, Swinton said. Accuracy and truth are the best defenses against libel, he added.

"It's important that the newspaper, the press, be allowed to report on issues of public concern and have some degree of protection in doing that," Swinton said. "This case reinforces the notion that there are free speech, First Amendment protections that the press is entitled to."

Judd did not award attorneys fees, but did order Steele to pay all court costs. A similar lawsuit that Steele filed against The Bonner Daily Bee is pending.

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