Weekly Newspaper’s Credibility Questioned in Texas Legal Battle

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A new weekly legal newspaper described as being a “propaganda sheet” for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to promote lawsuit reform is embroiled in a court fight over its journalistic integrity.

Brent Coon, a personal injury attorney, accuses a reporter and an editor with the Southeast Texas Record of trying to tamper with jury selection in an asbestos-related death case he was set to try earlier this month.

Coon described the Southeast Texas Record as a “propaganda sheet” and a “mouthpiece” for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that doesn’t merit Constitutional protections. It only offers biased stories and editorials maligning personal injury lawsuits filed against companies, he said.

But Greg Coleman, an attorney for the newspaper, contends its reporters are legitimate journalists protected by the First Amendment from any questioning.

Coon and Coleman made their arguments during a 2 1/2-hour court hearing to state District Judge Donald Floyd on Wednesday about whether the reporter and editor can be deposed. Floyd said he would rule next week.

“This court cannot be in the business of deciding who is a real journalist, what is a real paper,” Coleman said. “It’s a very dangerous business.”

Coon accused the newspaper’s editor, Marilyn Tennissen, and its reporter, David Yates, of distributing copies of the publication’s inaugural issue in the courthouse to potential jurors in his case during jury selection on April 2. The case, brought by the family of a petrochemical worker who died of cancer, was later settled.

“To tamper with the minds of people that come to be on the jury. That’s the only reason this paper exists,” said Coon, claiming the publication does not adhere to journalistic standards.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is an indirect owner of the newspaper, has been a proponent tort reform laws to protect business owners from lawsuit abuse. Beaumont has long been considered a hot spot for class-action and personal injury lawsuits.

Besides the Southeast Texas Record, the chamber partly owns two other newspapers which report only on legal issues, one in Illinois and one in West Virginia.

Coleman denied that copies of the free newspaper were handed out to potential jurors. And even if they were, he said, the paper contained no stories that discussed or criticized Coon’s case.

He said the newspaper should not be punished for what it reports on and for its viewpoint.

“That is a viewpoint-based restriction or a content-based restriction,” Coleman said. “And that is what the U.S. Supreme Court has said the First Amendment will not allow. Picking and choosing First Amendment speakers is not a legitimate undertaking.”

He said efforts to question the newspaper’s employees is driven by Coon’s professional animosity toward the chamber of commerce. Coon’s Beaumont-based law firm has set up a Web site critical of the chamber’s tort reform efforts.

Coon asked the court to order Tennissen and Yates to take a college-level journalism ethics course and to volunteer 40 hours in a cancer ward.

“These people are not journalists. They are not trying to report accurately on these issues. They are trying to poison the public’s opinion,” said Coon, who also represented plaintiffs in lawsuits filed against BP PLC after the 2005 explosion at its Texas City plant.

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