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From AJR,   June 1999  issue

Whose Files Are They, Anyway?   

By Douglas A. Cosper
Douglas A. Cosper is a writer and consulting editor for the weekly Boulder Planet.     

It was Allison Krupski's first real reporting job. It could be her last.

The enthusiastic cub reporter came to Boulder's Daily Camera, circulation 34,000, as a Northwestern University intern in 1995. The next year, the paper offered her a full-time job on the night cops and courts beat. She was 21. She later would tell a jury hearing her libel trial against the Colorado paper that journalism "was something I always dreamed of doing from when I was very young."

After only six months on the job, what most cop reporters would consider a golden opportunity landed on her desk. The day after Christmas 1996, Boulder entrepreneur John Ramsey discovered his 6-year-old daughter's strangled and beaten body stashed in a basement room of his home. The JonBenet Ramsey story attracted legions of reporters to Boulder, and the Camera named Krupski its lead reporter on the case.

But the big break became a curse for Krupski. "There was so much evilness surrounding [the story], it just absolutely destroyed me," she said in court.

Trouble began early on. Her editors told her they believed there "were people in the newsroom notifying other people about what I was writing," Krupski testified. Editors gave her an office with a door for privacy, a luxury not afforded her more experienced colleagues. Krupski's psychotherapist testified that he believed the paper was "setting her up for conflict with her fellow staff persons."

Clashes with her city editor over the hundreds of overtime hours Krupski was claiming escalated to frequent reprimands, she said. Meanwhile, her health suffered, she had relationship problems, and her parents were divorcing. Finally, in December 1997, at the end of three weeks of sick leave and vacation time, she cleaned out her desk and quit.

Krupski testified that she packed up all her files, and that she went desk to desk rounding up Ramsey files she considered hers. In plain view of late-night Camera employees, she carried three file boxes of materials from the building.

Five days later, Krupski retrieved the December 18 copy of the Camera from her porch. There, on page one of the local section, was a story about a lawsuit accusing her of theft. "I couldn't stop throwing up," she told the jury. "I couldn't stop crying."

The newspaper sued for the return of the Ramsey files as the deadline for an anniversary package of stories approached, Publisher Colleen Conant said at the trial. Testimony showed Camera editors also were worried that Krupski would hand the files over to a competitor. Conant, the only Camera staffer taking media queries on the case, did not return phone calls. Krupski declined comment.

On December 16, 1997, a state judge had ordered that Krupski not destroy, use or sell the documents. But he showed his disapproval of the Camera's theft charge by inking through that allegation, a detail not reported in the Camera's story on the ruling. Another judge later ordered Krupski to give the paper copies of her files. Krupski's lawyer, William Meyer, showed at trial that with few exceptions, the documents at issue were either once published by the Camera or were public records. After receiving copies of the documents, and with the anniversary deadline long passed, the Camera sought to drop its suit.

Meyer objected, calling the request "a cynical ploy to evade responsibility for the harm [the Camera] has caused Ms. Krupski." The judge ruled April 6, 1998, that the Camera must prove its theft allegation in court. Krupski countersued for defamation, outrageous conduct and invasion of privacy.

Meyer later told the jury that the Camera had chosen to brand Krupski a thief, "both to scare her and to put the fear of God in potential employers." Krupski testified of the theft allegation: "That label is going to be attached to me for the rest of my life."

During the eight-day civil trial in March of this year, the court threw out the theft charge and left the jury to consider only Krupski's claims. The Camera was fighting a losing battle in the aftermath of several decisions by Boulder District Judge Morris Sandstead. First, the judge ruled that Krupski was a private, not a public, figure, setting a lower standard of proof for libel. Perhaps more significant, because the newspaper was both the accuser and reporter in the case, Sandstead stripped the Camera of the traditional privilege to report court proceedings virtually risk-free from defamation charges.

On March 24, the jury found the newspaper had defamed Krupski, awarding her $115,000, including punitive damages of $45,000--the amount the paper set out to recover from her in its initial suit.

After the verdict, Conant told reporters it was "a pretty dark day for journalists." Sandra Baron, executive director of the Libel Defense Resource Center in New York, agrees. The decision "effectively prevents that media outlet from reporting on activities in the court with respect to litigation in which it is involved," counter to the intent of the First Amendment, she says. Baron says she knew of no precedent for the ruling and predicts an appeals court will reverse it "in strong and resounding fashion."

Still to be resolved is the question of who owns the documents Krupski took when she quit. Camera attorney Laurin Quiat argued the files were company property, because they were collected on company time. Krupski, who is currently unemployed, argued the files were her copies of documents she believed the paper still had. Sandstead's ruling is pending.

"That's still very important to us," says Quiat. "It will determine how people do business in the future." Quiat says he could find no clear legal guidelines as to who owns documents that reporters gather on the job. The Camera hasn't decided whether it will appeal the defamation verdict.

The legal wrangling occurred out of earshot of the jurors, who took away a simpler impression of the Krupski affair. After the verdict, juror Susan Sundstrom said she was struck by the lack of communication among professional communicators. "If they had just talked to each other about what was going on, I don't think this ever would have happened."