Newspaper wins suit with assistant coach

July 7, 2008 5:32:54 PM PDT
An appeals court in Texas has sided with a newspaper in a libel suit brought by an assistant coach after a hotly contested high school football game. The 12th District Court of Appeals in Tyler dismissed a lawsuit against the Palestine Herald-Press that alleged the newspaper's sports editor had libeled the assistant coach from Jacksonville High. Defensive coordinator Mark Zimmer contended he had been defamed when Palestine's sports editor wrote that Zimmer had made an "obscene gesture" to opposing fans after a game.

The court issued its ruling June 25.

The column in question followed a September 2006 game between rivals Jacksonville High and Palestine High. Jacksonville won the game 19-17, blocking a late field goal attempt by Palestine to preserve the victory.

Jacksonville's postgame celebration was recorded by video cameras, according to the court's written opinion. The visiting team's coach turned toward the Palestine sideline, raised his fists to the side of his head and "abruptly thrust his arms downward to his hips three times while slightly bending his knees and sidestepping toward the thirty yard line," Justice Brian Hoyle wrote in the opinion. "Zimmer was yelling with elevated excitement as he motioned."

In the column, sports editor Scott Tyler wrote that Zimmer made an "obscene gesture" toward Palestine fans and called it the worst display of sportsmanship he'd ever seen. Zimmer should be "embarrassed and ashamed of what he did and how he acted," Tyler wrote.

Tyler added that the coach "not only put a black mark on the Jacksonville football team but also Jacksonville High School and the city of Jacksonville."

The ruling hinged on the "obscene gesture" phrase in the column, said Jim McCown, an attorney for the newspaper in Palestine, about 100 miles southeast of Dallas. The court essentially ruled that the phrase was an individual judgment made by the sports editor and therefore protected by the First Amendment.

"I think this confirms what the First Amendment has always told us," McCown said. "A sports editor has the right to express an opinion without fear of retribution."

Zimmer has 45 days from the time of the ruling to appeal to the state Supreme Court. Zimmer's attorney did not immediately return a message left by The Associated Press.

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