’20/20′ victory in libel ruling stands

The Supreme Court yesterday refused to revive a $ 4 billion lawsuit by a millionaire inventor who says an ABC television program falsely portrayed him as a liar and hypocrite.

The court, without comment, let stand a ruling that threw out Arthur Jones’ libel suit over a 1987 report by the “20/20” TV program on the fate of 63 baby elephants Jones rescued from death in Africa.

Jones, the inventor of Nautilus exercise machines, was the subject of a “20/ 20” broadcast in 1984 — the year he airlifted the 63 elephants from Zimbabwe to the Ocala, Fla., farm he calls Jumbolair.

The elephants had been marked for death as part of a culling, or herd-thinning, operation.

The elephants lived on Jones’ Ocala estate until the summer of 1986, when the herd began to be dispersed.

The 1987 report aired by “20/20” was preceded by a comment by host Barbara Walters that it would discuss “the fate of some baby elephants to whom a promise was not kept.”

According to Jones’ suit against American Broadcasting Companies, that comment and others contained in the report “falsely cast him as a liar and a hypocrite, and accused him of animal cruelty.”

A federal judge dismissed the case before it reached a jury, ruling that some of the comments were not defamatory. She also ruled that those comments that might be considered defamatory were expressions of opinion, not statements of fact.

A restudy ordered

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal, but the Supreme Court in 1990 told the appeals court to restudy the case.

In that order, the justices said Jones’ lawsuit should be restudied in light of their 1990 ruling that the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech did not “create a wholesale defamation exemption for anything that might be labeled opinion.”

The 1990 ruling, however, had not stripped away constitutional immunity for pure expressions of opinion that cannot be proved true or false.

After accepting more briefs on the case, the 11th Circuit Court again ruled against Jones.

“We see no reason to reconsider our affirmance… on the alternate, and logically prior, ground of absence of defamation,” the appeals court said.

In the appeal acted on yesterday, lawyers for Jones said the appeals court wrongly “ignored the fact-vs.-opinion issue.”

The case is Jones vs. American Broadcasting Companies, 92-759.

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