Anniston Councilman Little files lawsuit against The Star
by Ben Cunningham
Metro Editor
May 23, 2009 | 7795 views |  1 comments | 52 52 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Anniston City Councilman Ben Little has filed a lawsuit against the company that publishes The Anniston Star, claiming the paper libeled him in a story in February and that the paper's editorials led to threats against him.

The suit stems from a story that raised questions over a contractor the city hired in 2008 for $2,500. The story quoted another councilman, who repeated allegations of a personal relationship between Little and the contractor.

The paper denied Little's charge of libel and his allegation of a campaign against him.

"I don't think those charges will hold up," said Bob Davis, The Star's editor.

Efforts Friday to reach Little and his attorneys for comment failed.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Calhoun County Circuit Court, takes issue with a Feb. 19 story regarding a city contract with a consultant. Yolanda Jackson of Uniontown was hired in 2008 at Little's urging to conduct an audit of the city's human resources practices. In the story, Councilman John Spain is paraphrased as saying he'd heard Little and Jackson had a personal relationship.

Spain was then quoted as saying he didn't know whether that was true. Little is quoted saying there was no truth to the rumor.

The suit also cites an editorial printed the next day regarding the contract. It mentioned the $2,500 price and called Jackson's audit "virtually useless," saying that no recommendations from the report had been implemented by the city. It also called the contract "Ben Little's sweetheart HR deal."

Little's suit calls those statements from the news story and the editorial "fale and malicious."

The suit next alleges that The Star committed "outrage" by waging a campaign urging he be removed from the city's public and political affairs. It says the alleged campaign resulted in "threats and danger" to Little's life.

About a month after the stories about the audit contract, clippings from The Star were found at City Hall and the Anniston post office with threats against Little scrawled in the margins. Little said at the time he thought editorials in The Star criticizing him were responsible for the threats.

Libel, briefly defined, is false or malicious printed communication. U.S. courts have long held that public officials must prove a higher standard when suing news organizations. The U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark 1964 case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, held that news organizations must have knowingly published false information about public officials, or published with reckless disregard for falsity for it to be libelous.

Named in Little's lawsuit are Consolidated Publishing Co., the company that publishes The Star; reporter Megan Nichols, who covers city government for the paper; and those responsible for the paper's editorials. (As at many newspapers, The Star's editorials are considered the work of its editorial board and are published without a byline.)

Davis said the paper stands by its work.

"We were covering another elected official speaking about his colleague, Mr. Little. We gave all parties an opportunity to speak, and we exercised good journalism principles in producing the news story," Davis said. "On the editorial, we did what editorials do, which is to examine the news of the day and to speak as an institutional voice for the betterment of our community."

Little is represented by Birmingham attorneys William Eugene Rutledge and Gregory F. Yaghmai. Their firm also represented Little in a March suit against Mayor Gene Robinson over comments from the mayor published in The Star. That story detailed a shouting match in January between the two politicians at City Hall. The mayor told The Star if the two had fought physically, it would have resulted in Little's funeral. Little said that was a death threat.

That suit is awaiting Calhoun County Circuit Judge Brian Howell's ruling on a motion by Robinson seeking dismissal.

Rutledge and Yaghmai also represented Councilman Herbert Palmore and former Councilman Stan Bennett in a federal case that sought to overturn a local judge's order dissolving the body redeveloping the former Fort McClellan and handing control of the fort to the Calhoun County Commission. That lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge May 14. The firm had earlier represented the entire council in the same effort until August elections brought in a new majority on the council, which decided to end the suit.

The firm also represented Anniston resident Curtis Ray in a suit filed in February against the mayor. That suit was over comments Robinson made in a story following his election, in which the mayor had said he hired Ray and another man to work on his campaign and "bought into the black corruption in Anniston."

Robinson later apologized for those remarks in a full-page ad in The Star.

Ray's suit is awaiting a hearing in Howell's courtroom on a motion by Robinson to dismiss the suit.

H. Brandt Ayers, publisher of The Star, said in a statement that the lawsuit against the paper was a shift for Little.

"Ben used to come by the office and talk about issues; that's the way you do it in small towns like ours. Now, he only talks through lawyers," Ayers wrote.

He said that Little, "must have come into some money, because he's certainly running up fancy attorneys' fees."

The paper has not yet filed a response to Little's complaint.

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