A circuit court judge ruled yesterday that six University of Maryland basketball players were public figures and dismissed their $36 million invasion of privacy suit against The Washington Star.
The six players sued The Star 13 months ago for publishing a story saying that four of them were on academic probation and two others had been on probation in the past. But Charles County Circuit Court Judge George W. Bowling dismissed their claim yesterday that the story invaded their privacy.
Three of the six players, Larry Gibson, John Bilney and Billy Bryant are still Maryland undergraduates. Lawrence Boston and Michael Davis finished their eligibility last year but did not graduate and Jo Jo Hunter has transfered to Colorado.
The suit charged that two stories on the newspaper's front sports page with accompanying pictures of the four players and a banner headline had caused a great deal of emotional stress for the players.
But Bowling ruled that The Star was within its rights in researching and publishing the story. "The court's findings reflect that the defendants' efforts to discover the plaintiffs' academic standing did not constitute an intrusion on seclusion," Bowling wrote in the conclusion of his 10-page opinion.
"The court further resolved that while the plaintiffs' university records were confidential, the plaintiffs' status as public figures negates their claim of unreasonable publicity given to private facts," Bowling continued. "Lastly, the court ruled there is insufficient proof of an intentional infliction of emotional distress."
The suit was originally filed for $72 million against both The Star and The Diamondback, the Maryland student newspaper. Bowling ruled, however, that the student newspaper had "charitable immunity," as a nonprofit organization, and ruled only on the charges against The Star.
The Washington Post also published a story on Nov. 1 about the probation but did not specifically mention the players on probation in the story, although it made it clear by process of elimination who they were.
Maryland basketball coach Charles G. (Lefty) Driesell and Jim Kehoe, then athletic director, both submitted lengthy despositions supporting the players' suit and attacking The Star. Neither man could be reached for comment last night.
Special correspondent Mark Hass also contributed to this story.