Attorney-Client Privileges 

When it comes to representing a newspaper, legal work can be downright interesting

When it comes to representing a newspaper, legal work can be downright interesting

In the old days, a suitor was a man who wooed a woman. In our current litigation-prone society, a suitor is a party to a lawsuit. Every person the Scene writes about is a potential suitor. Because of this sad fact of life, the Scene needs a lawyer. And for the last 10 years, I have been the Scene’s lawyer.

From the very beginning, the match has been a good one. I had just entered private law practice in 1989, when Albie Del Favero and Bruce Dobie took over the Scene. I needed clients, and they needed a lawyer.

Most of my work for the Scene involves heading off lawsuits. So far, the track record is good—10 years of publication and no lawsuits. The primary concern is, of course, libel suits. But we have also dealt with issues of copyright infringement, invasion of privacy, and access to public records.

The first person who threatened to sue the Scene was a local television reporter, who did not like being referred to as a “blonde on a stick.” After a flurry of threats to sue the paper, she calmed down and soon left town for a larger television market.

We learned a good lesson from that experience: The members of the media have surprisingly thin skins. The Scene has been a thorn in the sides of local journalists by reporting on their missteps and inconsistencies. Some have threatened to sue the Scene. None has.

One thing is clear, though. Nashville journalists read the Scene. One week a journalist may threaten to sue the paper. The next week the same journalist may provide juicy information to the Scene about one of his competitors.

Besides journalists, we have also tangled with restaurant owners and politicians. One prominent restaurant owner has complained twice about articles in the Scene. Each time, the paper was able to clarify the troublesome statements to his satisfaction.

The aftermath of one of these episodes was especially amusing to me, though. After negotiating with the restaurant owner’s attorney to clarify the statements in the Scene, I decided to sample the food at the restaurant for myself. At a nearby table, I spotted the attorney with whom I had negotiated. He promptly introduced me to his client as “that attorney for the Scene.” The restaurateur and I eyed each other nervously and then laughed a little.

I have learned that politicians have the most fragile egos. One prominent politician threatened to sue the Scene, but he backed off when he realized that he’d end up reading the offensive statements again and again in the newspaper, since a libel suit always provokes a lot of news coverage.

The Scene’s coverage of Baptist Hospital illustrates the rule of thumb followed by most libel attorneys: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The Scene asked me to review each of those stories very carefully prior to publication, to ensure the accuracy of the statements and the thoroughness of the investigation. The Scene reporter, Willy Stern, won an award for the stories, which provoked a lot of interest but no lawsuits.

The high point of my work for the Scene, however, involved a copyright infringement issue. The paper used a photograph of Al Gore that had appeared in a 1974 issue of a Nashville newspaper. The Scene had obtained the photograph from the local public library, but was accused of infringing the newspaper’s copyright in the photograph. A careful investigation revealed that the newspaper had not displayed a copyright notice—an absolute no-no prior to 1978. Therefore, there was no infringement. Case closed.

My work for the Scene is hardly work—the issues make my day interesting. And if I do my job properly, I hope my client will be able to steer clear of lawsuits for the next 10 years.

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