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Portion of Briggs & Stratton suit dismissed

Readers may recall that NCR asked a federal court in Wisconsin to dismiss a $30 million lawsuit brought against the newspaper by Briggs & Stratton, a small engine manufacturer based in Milwaukee. The suit has gained national attention for its potential implications for press freedom. It relates to a 1994 article, column and graphic chronicling layoffs at the company’s Milwaukee plant and subsequent labor disputes, and analyzing some implications of the company’s strategy.

We in the newsroom learned recently that Judge C.N. Clevert has looked kindly on part of NCR’s request. Clevert ruled that NCR did not violate privacy laws by reporting that the plaintiffs, all top officials at Briggs & Stratton, are Roman Catholics. The judge wrote, “Publication of a person’s religious affiliation, standing alone, is not so private that it would offend a reasonable person” -- the standard on which Wisconsin law is based. Nor, ruled the judge, were the officials defamed by NCR’s mention of where Briggs & Stratton officials attended college.

Clevert further ruled that the court, having no jurisdiction over religious matters, will refrain from addressing whether NCR defamed plaintiffs by suggesting that their business decisions may have been in conflict with Catholic teaching.

The court has, however, agreed to hear plaintiffs’ complaints that they were defamed by the article, column and graphics apart from religious considerations. The trial is scheduled to begin in March.

They’re not just writers and editors, they’re talkers too. Members of NCR’s staff are frequently invited to speak at conferences and similar events around the country. Three recent examples should convey the idea.

On Oct. 24, Special Projects Editor Pamela Schaeffer delivered the 1997 Paine Lecture in Religion at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Her lecture was titled “Stalking the Holy: A Religion Writer Talks About Her Work.” Schaeffer focused on the scope, vicissitudes and rewards of reporting on religion, including how she’s coped with subjects, sources, readers and editors past and present, and survived.

On Nov. 7, Latin America Editor Leslie Wirpsa is scheduled to address the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion at the University of Southern California. The title of her address is “Immigrants, Agency and the Catholic Church: A Perspective from Los Angeles.” She looks at the “ethnicization” of the Catholic church in Los Angeles, focusing on its role in championing the cultural, economic and social concerns of Latino and Asian immigrants.

On Oct. 24, Opinion Editor John Allen participated in a public symposium, “Public Dollars, Religious Schools: Where Do We Go From Here?” sponsored by the Case Western Reserve University School of Law & Public Policy Program in Cleveland. Allen’s session was titled “Church-State Debates: The Long-Term Implications.” He has written copiously on vital education issues in NCR in recent months.

Had there been a newspaper in the days of Jesus -- it might have been called the National Jewish Reporter -- it would, were it doing its job, have been a tantalizing mixture of good news and bad, crucifixion and transfiguration.

The ongoing Christian story has continued to sway between agony and ecstasy, good days and bad. NCR, in an effort to be authentic, reflects both, to mixed reactions. When we go grim, people often tell us to lighten up; when we get giddy, they tell us to get serious. All very human.

Robert McClory, on page 4, combines the good news and bad in a searing tale of tragedy and redemption. The murder of one teen by another in a Chicago suburb is all too common across the land. More uncommon is what happened next. The parish, led by its pastor, reached out in several directions with heartening results. Not a happy ending, of course: One is dead and another in jail for most of his life. Yet something mystical and healing took place and spread, and many people in that neighborhood will never be quite the same.

The church has evolved amazingly over many centuries until, in our time, the parish is a key unit within which the church thrives or stumbles. Because of priest shortages and other factors, parishes are going through difficult times. This week’s story shows how effective they can be at their best as structures for people living, praying and working together.

We at NCR are forever in search of similar stories of parishes at their best. We can’t ignore the bad news, but hanker for the good news.

The stunning last sentence of McClory’s article -- don’t cheat by turning to page 6 -- is eloquent testament to the church’s potential for good.

National Catholic Reporter, November 7, 1997