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Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Alabama shield law protects story sources

Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- A federal appeals court judge Wednesday questioned why Alabama's shield law should not protect Sports Illustrated, which is asking that its sources for a story about former Alabama football coach Mike Price remain confidential.

A district judge ruled that Alabama's law, which allows sources to remain confidential, refers to newspapers but does not specifically mention magazines like Sports Illustrated. Lawyers for Price want the sources named in the coach's defamation suit over an SI story about his night of drinking at a topless bar in Pensacola, Fla.

Price was 83-78 with five bowl appearances in 14 seasons at Washington State before leaving to take the Alabama job in 2003.

But he was fired after just four months, before coaching a game or signing his contract. Alabama's president cited drunken behavior after Price's highly publicized outing at a Florida strip joint in April 2003. Sports Illustrated reported that Price got drunk that night and had "aggressive" sex with strippers.

Former Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, one of three judges from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals hearing the shield law issue, said Wednesday the lower court's ruling did not define a newspaper. He also listed a broad range of publications that might be considered newspapers, including The New York Times Magazine, The Alabama Baptist and Black & White, a mostly entertainment publication in Birmingham.

"Have you ever seen The National Enquirer? I don't see how Sports Illustrated doesn't fit into the description of what's a newspaper," Pryor said.

Price's attorney, Stephen Heninger, said several states have shield laws that treat newspapers and magazines differently .

"There is no guarantee that all press will be treated equally," Heninger told the judges.

Heninger argued that Sports Illustrated should not be considered a newspaper under Alabama's shield law because "Sports Illustrated calls itself a magazine."

"So does 20-20 and it's on television," Pryor responded, referring to the ABC news show.

Sports Illustrated's attorney, Gary Huckaby, also argued that the magazine's reporter, Don Yaeger, should not be forced to reveal his sources until Price's attorney has exhausted all efforts to find them on his own.

Huckaby told the judges that Heninger has not taken sworn depositions from all of the women mentioned in the magazine story.

Heninger said later that he believes Price will win the lawsuit even if the judges rule that Yaeger doesn't have to reveal his sources.

"I feel we are in a good position. I think we can show there was no source. I just want affirmation from them," Heninger said.

Huckaby said the case involves "a very important principle for the press and the public could end up with less information, and then the public is going to suffer."

Price, who is now coach at Texas-El Paso, attended the hearing and said afterward he felt it was important for him to be there.

"I truly feel I was wrongly accused and I will continue to prove the accusation was wrong," Price said.

Price is suing Sports Illustrated over a May 2003 story by Yaeger that claimed Price, newly hired by Alabama, had sex with two women in a hotel room in Pensacola, where he was attending a golf tournament. Price has acknowledged having too much to drink and attending a topless bar, but he has denied the other allegations.

Price led Texas El Paso to an 8-4 record and a trip to the Houston Bowl last season, the first winning season for the Miners since 2000 and only the second in 17 years. Asked if he felt vindicated by the success on the field, Price shook his head.

"I already knew that I was a good coach. What will vindicate me is when it's proved before a jury that these things didn't happen," Price said.