The First Amendment, guarantor of a free press in the United States, was seriously wounded last year but the press failed to report its own injury.
It happened on June 4, 1982, when the Synanon Foundation, a one-time drug rehabilitation organization, agreed to drop a $21 million slander suit against ABC and KGO-TV, San Francisco.
ABC agreed to pay Synanon $ 1.25 million in return for dropping the suit.
The stories challenged by Synanon concerned the organization’s leadership, use of charitable trust funds, and interest in the purchase of large stores of arms and ammunition.
The reporters who covered the story felt they had done solid, hard-hitting and accurate journalism; they also felt that the ABC/KGO attorneys were winning the case when it was dropped by ABC.
The decision to settle out of court apparently was a simple business proposition. ABC, with the advice of its insurance carriers, the Home Group, already had spent an estimated $3 to $8 million defending the Synanon suits and prosecuting its own countersuit against Synanon for harassment. Ironically, ABC won the latter suit.
The story is an important one for at least two reasons. First, despite the media’s normal tendency to provide major coverage of sensational courtroom trials and the significance of this trial in terms of press freedom, there was little if any television and print coverage.
Second, according to those involved, the settlement seriously challenges the traditional press belief that truth is a defense against libel and slander actions. Apparently the cost of seeking justice is now rewriting the Peter Zenger precedent of 1735.
Finally, some reporters feel that the out-of-court settlement would not have happened if more publications had not been scared away from covering the case because of the hundreds of libel suits and demands for retraction Synanon had filed in the past.
The First Amendment surely is in jeopardy if the press permits itself to be intimidated by litigious minded groups.
MediaFile, July 1982, “KGO Settles Suit with Synanon,” by Fred Stout.