Court hears appeal of talk-show host's trial

Posted: Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Tom Leykis' radio show hasn't been heard in Juneau since 1998, but the Los Angeles-based syndicated talk host's court case is back again.

Leykis' free-speech rights were at the center of Tuesday's Alaska Supreme Court hearing of his network's appeal of damages awarded to a Juneau woman who claimed his on-air ridicule caused personal injury.

An attorney for plaintiff Karen Carpenter compared Leykis' actions to pre-World War II Nazis. An attorney representing Leykis' production company conceded that his discourse wasn't at the level of the Federalist Papers.

"Some people are vulgar," L. Merrill Lowden said in the program's defense. "Some people have vulgar tastes. But we live in a pluralistic society."

In 2000, Carpenter sued Leykis and production company Westwood One.

Arguments Tuesday before the state Supreme Court in Juneau recounted how Carpenter had written a letter complaining about the show's inappropriateness to radio station KJNO, which carried it. The station has not carried the show since its July 24, 1998 broadcast.

Carpenter filed the suit, claiming Leykis responded to her complaint by broadcasting verbal attacks and her home telephone and fax numbers. Jack McGee, an attorney for Carpenter, said the things he said about her "stripped her of her humanity before 212 million Americans."

Westwood One attorney Leslie Longenbaugh said that in the end, the jury awarded her $5,042 in compensatory damages and $150,000 in punitive damages against the company.

The jury found the company intentionally destroyed a show tape that was evidence in the case. Leykis' Web site still has a link to the archived Empire article about the verdict.

No one was happy with the judgment from the 2002 trial before Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins.

Carpenter appealed the dismissal of the defamation claim. Westwood One appealed its loss, and the state, which is entitled to a portion of punitive damages, appealed its cut.

Tuesday, one floor below Collins' courtroom in the Dimond Courthouse, McGee said the case "rests on human decency."

He argued that Leykis' speech was not protected by the First Amendment. Even if it was, that would not defend false statements, his claims that her motive for complaining about his show was based on "sexual frustration and deprivation."

McGee noted that Leykis had claimed First Amendment protection, but he argued that a free society has to place limits on speech to survive.

He referred to a 1942 article in the Columbia Law Review that discussed how Nazis in Germany had weakened democratic values by silencing critics. Leykis' speech, similarly, was not meant to foster public debate, but to chill opposition.

"All she wants is a chance to restore her dignity before her peers," McGee said.

Lowden said the case was all about First Amendment rights and began with Carpenter exercising her own in a letter. It was more than just a letter of complaint, Lowden said, arguing that Carpenter implied she could contact advertisers and picket the station.

She said Carpenter had one obnoxious telephone call after her number was broadcast, and the person who authored the most obnoxious fax was not from Alaska and didn't pose a threat.

The justices took the matter under advisement and will rule at a later date.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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