13. THE UNPUBLICIZED ASSAULT ON THE FIRST AMENDMENT
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
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
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