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Dismissal of tribe's lawsuit upheld

By Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2001

A state appeals court has upheld a circuit judge's decision to throw out a lawsuit filed by the Seminole Tribe of Florida against the St. Petersburg Times.

The tribe sued in response to a 1997 Times series about the Seminoles' casinos, business interests and chairman Chief Jim Billie. The lawsuit accused the newspaper and two reporters, Jeff Testerman and Brad Goldstein, of interfering with the tribe's business relationships by soliciting confidential information from tribal employees and intimated that the stories were racially motivated.

But last year, a circuit judge in Broward County, home of the tribe's headquarters, dismissed the suit and said the tribe could not sue the newspaper for trying to gather news.

In its opinion Wednesday, the 4th District Court of Appeal agreed and said the stories were "obviously non-racist" and covered matters of public concern.

"The proper response of the state to the expansion of organized gambling has been the subject of debate for the past 25 years," the opinion said. "Therefore, the manner in which the tribe operates its existing casinos is a matter of public concern, which is a proper subject for news stories."

Donald Orlovsky, the West Palm Beach attorney representing the tribe, could not be reached.

Alison Steele, attorney for the Times, called the decision "a ringing endorsement of the First Amendment as a concept."

"The opinion underscores the news media's role in informing the public about important political and governmental issues," she said. "It suggests it is particularly appropriate for the public and the news media to pay careful attention to those who wish to engage in gambling activities in our state."

Steele said she spoke with the tribe's lawyer, who had not read the opinion but indicated he may appeal to a higher court.

* * *

Read the three-part series (Seminole Gambling: A Trail of Millions)

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