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The Straight Dope?

An offhand allegation gets the Little Rock Free Press in hot water.

by Jim Hanas

he column is called "Herbal Tea Party." Its subject is drug-law reform. Its author is Jack Page, president of the Arkansas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). And here is the observation that prompted Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee's two sons to file a libel suit last week against the Little Rock Free Press, the free, biweekly newspaper in which the column runs:

"Perhaps the greatest example of the dangerously Machiavellian collusion between Arkansas government and Arkansas Media was the total media blackout concerning Governor Huckabee's son being caught with cannabis in his school locker and only receiving a short suspension for a token punishment without ever being arrested or prosecuted," writes Page in the Free Press' May 12th edition.

In the context of the column, which was about how the media fail to deliver the straight dope on the drug war, the incident is simply an example, an anecdote, a casual one-liner. And the Huckabees -- David, John, and their father, the governor -- say it isn't true.

Last week's lawsuit -- which accuses the paper of publishing false statements "either intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth" -- came after Free Press publisher Dorothy Oliver refused a deal that would have included a retraction, apologies in both the Free Press and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and a $50,000 settlement. Both of Huckabee's sons are party to the suit since the Free Press did not specify either one, thereby allegedly damaging the reputations of both. Oliver says Page was writing about the younger Huckabee, David, and now admits she was not aware the governor had two sons.

At a press conference last Wednesday, the day after the suit was filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court, Governor Huckabee said the legal action was intended "to serve notice today that people who make these kinds of allegations had better be prepared to go to court to prove them."

In addition, an attorney for Huckabee allowed the Democrat-Gazette, Little Rock's daily newspaper, to inspect the confidential disciplinary file of 18-year-old David Huckabee from Little Rock's Parkview High School, where young Huckabee graduated in 1998. The file includes write-ups for excessive talking and for carrying a pager, but the incident Page describes is not there.

Oliver insists, however, that Page has got the goods, based on reports from several Parkview students. Page is not a Free Press employee or freelancer, according to Oliver, but instead writes the "Herbal Tea Party" column on behalf of NORML in space donated by the paper.

Another local publication, meanwhile, says they've had no luck verifying Page's claim.

"There are no police records about it. There are no school records about it, so we never wrote about it," says Max Brantley, editor of the Free Press' weekly competitor the Arkansas Times, who says he looked into the allegation after reading Page's column. Brantley says an incident in which one of Huckabee's sons received special treatment would certainly be newsworthy, if such an incident took place. "I haven't yet seen any evidence in that publication [the Free Press] to back that up," he says.

At the very least, the Free Press is guilty of shoddy journalism, and could be open to a libel claim from Huckabee's elder son John simply because of its imprecision, even if, as Oliver says, they can back up the claim about David. And then there's the issue of whether or not the relatives of public figures are themselves public figures, and thus entitled to less libel protection than private citizens. David Huckabee has been in the news before, however, when the Democrat-Gazette reported last summer that he had been fired from his job at a Boy Scout camp after a stray dog was killed, an incident in which no charges were ever filed.

Governor Huckabee's remedy, on the other hand, looks like it might be more painful than the complaint.

"I'm an avid critic of the governor, but I'm somewhat sympathetic," says the Times' Brantley. "He [Huckabee] clearly managed to republish what he says was a false allegation tens of thousands more times than it would have been otherwise."

Meanwhile, Page's column has been conspicuously absent from the Free Press the last couple of issues. Oliver says it's just a matter of missed deadlines.

"He's been a little late getting them in the last few times," she says.

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