Oklahoma Newspaper Ordered To Pay $25 Million For Defamation

On Monday, an Oklahoma jury ordered the state’s largest newspaper, The Oklahoman, to pay a staggering $25 million to Scott Sapulpa, a sports broadcaster unjustly smeared as a racist.

The case arose out of the aftermath of a March 2021 incident at a girls’ basketball game at Norman High School. After a group of players knelt in support of the Black Lives Matter movement before a game, things spiraled into controversy when a commentator — not Sapulpa — used racial slurs against the girls.

Amid the outrage over the insulting statements, The Oklahoman erroneously identified Sapulpa as the source of the remarks. The swiftness with which The Oklahoman corrected the error — within two and a half hours — did little to douse the flames of the damage done. Sapulpa, a previously respected educator and coach, faced a relentless torrent of threats, hate calls and messages, culminating in the loss of his job and a need to erase his digital presence for personal safety.

In the courtroom, Sapulpa’s attorney, Michael Barkett, highlighted the case’s broader implications, arguing that it set a precedent for newspapers prioritizing profits over people. This sentiment was echoed in the jury’s decision to award Sapulpa $5 million in actual damages and a further $20 million in punitive damages.

Gannett, the parent company of The Oklahoman, has already announced plans to appeal the verdict. Their spokesperson, Lark-Marie Anton, stressed the “lack of evidence” indicating that the newspaper acted maliciously or intended to harm Sapulpa.

Critics of the verdict, including Bob Nelon, an attorney for Gannett, have warned of the potential negative impacts such a large settlement could have on smaller community newspapers. This view, however, overlooks the essential need for accountability in journalism. Regardless of their size, newspapers must uphold the truth and maintain a rigorous standard of fact-checking.

As Sapulpa expressed his relief over the clearing of his and his family’s names, the message to media outlets was clear: accuracy and accountability are not optional but fundamental tenets of journalism. This case is a wake-up call for all media organizations to reflect deeply on their reporting practices and the potential consequences of their errors, reminding them that great power comes with great responsibility.