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"I'm George Lane's niece," writes Amanda Bradford. "I was there with my uncle when he had to appear in court the first time we went. They did not ask us if we wanted any help." Read letter.

George Lane -- hero or hellion?

by Mary Johnson

George Lane, 40, has been arrested more than 30 times on charges that include drunken driving, drugs and traffic offenses, writes the Associated Press's Bill Poovey.

Recent pieces published about the ADA Tenn. v. Lane case, which the Supremes will hear on Tues. (Jan 13), offer a good example of how facts can be parlayed by reporters to create completely different -- and almost opposite -- impressions.

Late last week, Bill Poovey of Tennessee's Associated Press reported on plaintiff George Lane like this:

Eight years ago, after an auto wreck left him unable to walk, George Lane crawled up two flights of stairs at the Polk County Courthouse to face reckless driving charges. He says he will never forget the humiliation of having to drag his body up 30 tile steps. "Two law enforcement officers and county officials stood at the top and laughed," he says. ... Lane, 40, has been arrested more than 30 times and charges that include drunken driving, drugs and traffic offenses. No longer in a wheelchair, Lane now uses an artificial leg to walk inside the razor-topped fences at Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex, where he is serving time for slamming a fellow prisoner in the head with a crutch at a county jail. ... Courthouse employees who witnessed Lane's crawl in Benton, about 40 miles from Chattanooga, say that no one laughed and that he refused offers of help. In fact, Lane declined a judge's offer to move the hearing to a ground-floor room; he says he wanted to be treated like everyone else.

On Sunday, the New York Times's Adam Cohen wrote a remarkable Editorial Observer column about the case. It comes close, almost, to the kind of editorializing that was done in the past about civil rights issues -- that is to say, the reporter is outraged at the facts of the case and sees it as important -- pretty amazing for a NYTimes editorial page that has been lukewarm, at best, to disability rights.

Here's how Cohen reported on the facts of George Lane:

When George Lane showed up at the Polk County Courthouse with a crushed hip and pelvis, he had a problem. His hearing was on the second floor, there was no elevator, and the judge said he had better get upstairs. Mr. Lane, both of whose legs were in casts, somehow managed to get out of his wheelchair and crawl up two flights of stairs. "On a pain scale of 1 to 10, it was way past 10," he says. While Mr. Lane crawled up, he says, the judge and other courthouse employees "stood at the top of the stairs and laughed at me." His case was not heard in the morning session, he says, and at the lunch break he crawled back down. That afternoon, when he refused to crawl upstairs again, he was arrested for failing to appear, and put in jail....

George Lane was working two jobs when he got into the car accident that led to his court appearance. Mr. Lane, who had had minor run-ins with the law before, was not popular with the courthouse crowd in his rural Tennessee county. The employees who laughed at him offered to carry him upstairs, he says, but he was afraid they would intentionally drop him. (The judge who presided that day is no longer alive; the court clerk says she was not present.)

Besides showing us the different skill level of the writers, these two clips show clearly how the same facts can be massaged to create different images and bring forth different emotions in the reader. Poovey's Jones seems almost to deserve his fate, whereas Cohen's Jones comes across not as blameless but certainly as a man who has been denied his rights and in the most humiliating of ways.

The facts of this case are so outrageous that they should have been drawing good press all along -- but the press is just now starting. Some crips are planning to crawl up the Supreme Court steps on Tuesday -- we'll see how that affects coverage, if at all.

Let's be particularly attentive to how the facts of George Lane get reported; what kind of a picture reporters and editorial writers paint of the plaintiff, and how much this influences any commentary there may be. Recall that the Supremes voted in favor of Casey Martin because they liked him, because he was a "courageous young man."

Though it should have nothing to do with the legal rightness of the law, a plaintiff's moral qualities, or lack thereof, often play a large role in cases. That's why Rosa Parks is remembered as the woman who wouldn't go to the back of the bus. The movement chose her to be the symbol because her personal life was above reproach. Plenty of other blacks had refused to move to the back of the bus; but the civil rights organizers turned her refusal into a case because they knew she would play well in the media.

Posted Jan. 12, 2004

Mary Johnson is editor of Ragged Edge.

WHAT DO YOU THINK of what you've just read? Click to tell us.

Readers respond...

I'm George Lane's niece. I was there with my uncle when he had to appear in court the first time we went. They did not ask us if we wanted any help. I helped him up the stairs while the officers laughed at us. (He is not at Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex for slamming a fellow prisoner in the head -- he is there for Violation of Probation. He was not charged for anything causing the wreck.)

The second time he had to appear in court he asked the judge to move [the hearing] down to the public library, but he refused. Then the judge ordered a bench warrant [for his arrest], knowing that he was downstairs, knowing that he had had a hard time getting up the stairs earlier that day.

Court people are not there to judge people [but] to uphold the law -- not their feelings.

Thank you for listening to what really happened.

            Amanda Bradford, Cleveland, TN





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