Coleman used courtroom skills to help Record get off the ground

Steve Korris Dec. 2, 2010, 9:27am


�BEAUMONT � When prominent Texas attorney Greg Coleman died in a plane crash on Nov. 23, he was lauded from Washington to Austin for his integrity and ethical convictions.

Coleman is also remembered here in Jefferson County as a fighter for the First Amendment that helped make the publication of the Southeast Texas Record possible.

Coleman rescued editor Marilyn Tennissen and reporter David Yates from an order of contempt that local plaintiff lawyer Brent Coon sought as soon as the Record started publishing in April 2007.

By convincing District Judge Donald Floyd to deny Coon's contempt motion, Coleman foreclosed Coon's plan to pursue jury tampering charges with the district attorney.

On the Record's first day in print, Tennissen and Yates carried copies into the courthouse.

Coon told Floyd they tampered with jurors waiting for trial. Coon asked permission to depose them, and Floyd granted it.

Coon sent a notice, but they did not keep his appointment.

On their behalf, Coleman moved to quash the depositions.

On a Friday, Coon called a press conference to accuse Tennissen and Yates of tampering and contempt.

He filed a contempt motion, and Floyd set a hearing the next Tuesday.

The rush of events stunned Tennissen and Yates, but their distant employers assured them that they had retained the top lawyer in Texas.

At the hearing, Floyd called on Coleman first.
Coleman said, "The First Amendment protects journalists in the carrying out of their duties and imposes a high standard of scrutiny with respect to individuals who would seek to depose or take discovery from them in the execution of one of those duties.
"In addition, the specific conduct that has been alleged against these two individuals is conduct that is all protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution."
He said Coon's motion was driven by personal and professional animosity toward the indirect owner of the paper, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Southeast Texas Record is owned by the Institute for Legal Reform, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber.
Coleman said the first four pages of Coon's motion were all about the U.S. Chamber and Coon's belief that it was illegitimate for the Chamber to directly or indirectly own a newspaper that speaks out on civil litigation.
"All newspapers have owners. All newspapers have editorial bents," Coleman said.
The attorney also said that as he entered the court he he received a comment about working for "worthless bastards."
"That type of comment and strongly held feelings, the First Amendment protects that," Coleman said
He said Coon was free to speak out against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"But that same freedom, the freedom to write and speak about the courts and about the court system, about litigation, is also as strongly held -- perhaps more strongly held -- by the press protections contained in the First Amendments of the United States and Texas Constitutions," Coleman said.

Coon had complained that the paper referred to asbestos cases and was available in the courthouse as jury selection was underway for one of his asbestos suits.

But Coleman argued that "Almost every paper that covers any type of civil litigation, you cannot open the pages and not see some article about asbestos, silicosis litigation, tort reform, other things like that.

"What we don't have today, or at any time since this motion was first filed, is any indication of what words in this paper it would be proper for somebody to read."

He said, "The allegation that handing that newspaper to somebody is an act of tampering with a jury is a hollow and frivolous argument."

He said nothing in it could justify depositions against any individuals.
"The risk that you will impinge on fundamental First Amendment rights is so great that the U.S. Supreme Court requires heightened and, indeed, strict scrutiny before a court may issue or permit that type of discovery," Coleman said.
"There is no allegation that these individuals were offering or paying consideration to people to vote a certain way in a case. There is no allegation of any attempt to persuade an individual, for consideration or not, to prejudge a case, much less to even discuss Mr. Coon's case."
He said the paper didn't mention the lawsuit that was to be tried, the plaintiff, or Coon.
"This newspaper, I understand that he has a philosophical opposition to it," Coleman said. "I understand he doesn't like it and he doesn't like what its owners stand for."
"That does not justify a campaign of harassment and intimidation against a publication the day it shows up in Beaumont and begins to operate in this city.

"Looking past plaintiff's counsel's animosity toward the owners of this paper and toward the paper, the plaintiffs themselves have no interest, no jurisdictional interest, in seeking discovery, even if there were precedent for allowing it in a new trial or a mistrial context."
He said, "That, fundamentally, is the heart of counsel's argument - that the Record, because it is owned by the Chamber, at least indirectly, and not directly, and that the Chamber has a point of view, that it's simply not entitled to the same First Amendment rights that other publications might be.

"But those other publications, many of them, also have points of view, and there has been much discussion in the press over the past many, many years regarding that particular well known fact."

�"This court cannot be in the business of deciding who is a real journalist, what is a real newspaper, and whether the Record is entitled to fundamental First Amendment rights," Coleman said.

He asked Floyd to quash the depositions.

The judge said he would take it under advisement.

A week later, Floyd quashed the depositions and denied the contempt motion.

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