Responsibility hits home in Jewell tale

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 15, 2000

Freedom of speech and the press are rights worth fighting for.

Friday, September 15, 2000

Freedom of speech and the press are rights worth fighting for. A true democracy could never exist without a citizenry that has the right to inquire into any issue and to speak its mind on the same.

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But there are times when the manifestation of those freedoms should make us think about what can happen when an innocent gets caught in the expression of those rights.

When the bomb exploded in Olympic Park in Atlanta in 1996, Richard Jewell’s life changed forever.

Once a security guard on the premises, Jewell was proposed as a suspect in the case and the media reported that accusation.

After days of relentless pursuit by reporters from all over the world, Jewell pleaded with the media to leave him and his mother alone. Mrs. Jewell even tearfully begged President Bill Clinton to stop the harassment of her son and "to clear his name."

Despite his protestations to the contrary, Jewell spent weeks and months answering charges and declaring his innocence.

Later, federal officials would agree that he was, in fact, innocent.

To this day, the man suspected in the bombing has not been arrested. The case is still active and a topic of conversation as the 27th Olympiad prepares for its debut in Sydney, Australia.

Jewell still lives with the mantle of "suspect" and continues to suffer for his brief infamy. A false accusation, although removed, he feels, will forever cast a pall over his life.

So, the question is not whether he should have been investigated. The real issue remains. Should the media have been allowed to know that he was a suspect? Did the insatiable need for news overshadow this man’s rights?

There is no one right answer. Freedom to address the issues of the day in a public forum means that, sometimes, innocent people are wronged. The good results from the openness Americans enjoy should never overshadow the need for a responsible press. An innocent person’s life could be ruined by an overzealous report. That is a consequence that should never be minimized.

The Jewell case should make us all think about what is news and how we choose to report it, support it or demand it.