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Tabloids to Wage Bitter War Over Expose in Court

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two supermarket tabloids will face off today in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, fighting over rights to a scoop that combines all the breathless elements the scandal sheets hold dear.

There’s the cheating celebrity husband, the seductress and the Manhattan hotel room wired for video. It’s the story of sportscaster Frank Gifford’s tryst with former stewardess Suzen Johnson at a New York hotel last year.

Now the so-called Gifford expose is at the center of a simmering tabloid war between rivals the Globe, which broke the story, and the National Enquirer, which plans to report in next week’s editions that the Globe story was a setup.

Their dispute could turn the 1st Amendment on its ear, legal experts say.

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The Globe, acting much like the scandal-loathing celebrities who populate its pages, is asking a federal judge for an injunction blocking distribution of next week’s Enquirer. And Globe lawyers are considering asking the judge to seal copies of the Enquirer story and close the courtroom to the press and public.

“It’s the apotheosis of hypocrisy,” said attorney Doug Mirell, an expert on 1st Amendment law. “The Globe would have appropriately gone ballistic if any of the subjects of their exposes had gone to court to try and stop publication. For them to attempt to turn the tables is both unfathomable and hypocritical.”

He added that if the Globe prevails, “they will succeed only in establishing a precedent which would be used by others against the Globe in many more situations.”

Enquirer editor Steve Coz said he was outraged and amazed. “I’ve never heard anything like it,” he said. “For the first time in America, one paper is trying to stop another from publishing the truth. The Globe obviously doesn’t want America reading this story.”

Globe attorney Amy Hogue could not be reached. But Michael Kahane, the Globe’s vice president of legal affairs, said the case was a classic example of copyright infringement and had little bearing on free press issues.

Johnson’s seduction of Gifford, which broke in the Globe story “My Steamy Tryst With Frank Gifford,” made national news last year. Now, the Globe’s biggest competitor, the Enquirer, is prepared to run its own insider exclusive with Johnson.

“I Set Up Frank for $250,000,” the front page headline on next week’s edition of the Enquirer blares.

The Globe alleges that it has a contract giving it all rights to the tale. Legal papers accuse Johnson, the Enquirer and writer David Wright of violating the Globe’s copyright.

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U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder has set a hearing for this afternoon.

The Globe claims that its May 27, 1997 exclusivity agreement “provides that information concerning Ms. Johnson’s relationship with famed ‘Monday Night Football’ sportscaster and former professional athlete Frank Gifford, including her business dealings with Globe relating to Frank Gifford, constitute the confidential, valuable, special and unique assets of . . . Globe.” The suit claims that Johnson promised not to disclose the information.

The Enquirer’s story “contains numerous false statements of fact,” court papers assert.

Enquirer editor Coz would not say how much, if anything, his publication paid Johnson for her story.

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The Globe is seeking court orders halting publication and dissemination of the Enquirer story, an accounting, seizure of all promotional and advertising materials, and other monetary damages to be decided at a jury trial.

Mirell said the tabloid’s chances of success seem unlikely.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he said. “Under the law, copyright violations, defamation and other causes of action pale beside the right to free speech and an unfettered press.”


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