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Judge to decide Olympic libel case on ‘public figure’ test

A former senator was mistakenly linked to scandal

SHARE Judge to decide Olympic libel case on ‘public figure’ test

A federal judge will decide whether former state Sen. Craig A. Peterson was still a public figure when an Associated Press photograph published in the New York Times incorrectly linked him to the Salt Lake Olympic scandal last year.

If U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball agrees with Peterson that he was no longer a public figure two-and-a-half months after stepping down from his Senate position, then Peterson's defamation lawsuit against the AP could go to trial.

But if the judge believes that Peterson's 12 years in elected office qualified him as a public figure a few months after his last term in public service ended, then the case likely will be dismissed.

Kimball took the matter under advisement at the conclusion of a hearing Tuesday. He has 60 days to decide.

Originally, Peterson had sued the New York Times, which ran the full-page article that included photographs of him, former SLOC President Tom Welch and Vice President Dave Johnson. But he dropped his claims against the national daily in October, after finding that defamation law protects a news organization that is not the original publisher of slanderous material.

On Feb. 9, 1999, the AP sent out a photo of Peterson standing in the Capitol rotunda with a caption saying a Salt Lake Organizing Committee ethics panel had linked him, as financial adviser to the bid committee, to the corruption surrounding Salt Lake City's successful Olympic bid.

The financial adviser was Craig E. Peterson, not the former Senate majority leader from Orem.

The Times picked up the photo off the national news wire and published it Feb. 10 with the caption and the story on the Salt Lake Olympic scandal. The story and photo also appeared on the Times Web site.

AP attorney Randy Dryer emphasized at the hearing that the AP had promptly sent out a correction and a photo of Craig E. Peterson to all its member news agencies. Once the Times discovered the mistake, it removed the photo from its Web site and published a correction.

"There's no question there was a mistake here," Dryer said. "The AP acknowledged that quickly and corrected it."

The lawsuit should be dismissed because the former senator at the time of publication fit the definition for a public figure as defined by the courts, which affords the press greater leniency when mistakes occur, he added.

The nation's courts have said that public figures are afforded less protection against defamation than private citizens because they invite greater public scrutiny and usually have a greater ability to counter published false statements.

Twelve years of public service don't "magically dissipate over a two-and-a-half-month period" after leaving office, Dryer said. "One simply cannot say that since I'm no longer in office, I automatically revert to private status."

But Peterson's attorney, Roger Hoole, argued that "it is important to let people serve (in public office) and then go back to private life."

"My client never thrust himself into the vortex of the Olympics," Hoole said. "He had nothing to do with it."

A Dan Jones poll within weeks of the publication showed that only about 8 percent of the state's population could identify Peterson as a former state senator. That proves Peterson could no longer be considered a public figure and the press should have been careful not to "criticize" him for something he never did, Hoole said.

Because many of Peterson's clients read the Times, he has suffered a loss of credibility, Hoole said. "He's tainted . . . It is a tough situation for him."

E-mail: hans@desnews.com