Newspaper responds to lawsuit by publishing all photos

Saturday, April 29, 2006

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Faced with relinquishing hundreds of unpublished photos sought by attorneys in a lawsuit over a Missouri football player's death, the Columbia Daily Tribune went one step further Friday and made them available for everyone to see.

"Because the 604 photographs taken during the workout and not subsequently published have become a focus of ongoing coverage of the lawsuit, it's appropriate that we let readers see them," Tribune Managing Editor Jim Robertson wrote in an introductory note on the paper's Web site,

The photos depicting former Missouri linebacker Aaron O'Neal and his teammates were posted as a chronological slide show on the Web site at 8:10 a.m. Friday, two days after a Boone County circuit judge ordered the paper to provide the digital images to attorneys representing O'Neal's family in a wrongful death lawsuit.

The 19-year-old redshirt freshman collapsed on the field about 45 minutes into an hour-long, voluntary workout on July 12, 2005, and died later that afternoon. The Boone County medical examiner ruled that O'Neal died of viral meningitis, with swelling in his brain affecting his heart and causing him to lose his ability to breathe properly.

Judge Gary Oxenhandler based his ruling in part on the absence of a reporters' shield law in Missouri, one of 19 states lacking such defined legal protections for journalists' notes and other work products.

The paper decided not to appeal Oxenhandler's ruling, said Robertson, who cited concern that "an unsuccessful appeal would establish a precedent that would harm all Missouri newspapers."

"We believe turning over work materials such as reporters notes or photographers 'outs' unpublished photographs runs counter to journalistic independence and could well create a chilling effect in our dealings with news sources," Robertson said.

O'Neal's parents are suing 14 university employees, including head coach Gary Pinkel, athletic director Mike Alden and team medical director Rex Sharp.

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