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Posted at 8:29 AM ET, 02/10/2011

Story pick: Why a sports owner's lawsuit matters

By Theresa Vargas

I overheard a reporter speaking firmly in the phone one day, only to stop mid-sentence to say: “Oh, you said the L word, sir. I can no longer talk to you.” It was clear what had happened. The man on the phone had threatened a lawsuit, which meant he would have to finish his conversation with the newspaper’s lawyers.

Unhappy readers happen. Lawsuits do, too, though very rarely.

When they do happen, they are usually handled out of public view, often even out of sight from the reporters at the center of them. Which is what makes an article displayed this morning across the top of Washington City Paper’s website so interesting.

It is a piece by the paper’s editor Michael Schaffer about the $2 million lawsuit filed against them by Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder. The headline: “Bully Pulpit: Why a sports owner’s lawsuit matters.” Schaffer writes:

Every journalist dreams of someday being in the middle of one of those epic, David-and-Goliath, right-versus-wrong First Amendment showdowns. Still, during a week when Egyptians were facing physical threats in order to protest an autocratic government—and working reporters were subjected to actual violence while covering the demonstrations—there was something a mite embarrassing about having our version of that battle take the form of a collision with a local sports-team owner. Yes, City Paper has the right to paint a truthful, unflattering portrait of Snyder’s business and football record. But it’s not like the team has an army and a secret police force at its disposal.
The owner of the Redskins is no Hosni Mubarak. All the same, Dan Snyder’s efforts to put City Paper in its place are worth caring about. And, for the record, they’d still be worth caring about even if his Redskins were perennial playoff contenders, even if FedExField were a model of affordable ticket pricing, and even if Snyder was the sort of beloved civic figure people decorated with halos rather than devil horns.

In the City Paper piece, we also learn that the legal defense fund the paper has set up has already received about 500 donations, bringing the total to more than $18,000. The fund was suggested by several readers in Gene Weingarten's chat about the issue, which if you missed, is also definitely worth a read.

By Theresa Vargas  | February 10, 2011; 8:29 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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