An anonymous street poster brands a famous, macho actor ''absolutely queer.'' A supermarket tabloid reprints the poster in an article about ''outing.'' The actor announces that he is ''singularly heterosexual,'' and he sues the tabloid for libel and invasion of privacy.... When Tom Selleck's $20 million lawsuit against the Globe goes to trial in Los Angeles Superior Court, a welter of hot-button controversies the extent of First Amendment freedoms, Hollywood's grudge against the tabloids, the debate over identifying, or outing, allegedly gay public figures will be crowded into a single courtroom.
The impetus for Selleck's lawsuit came several months ago, when an underground group of gay activists called Outpost plastered New York City with pictures of actors, writers, athletes, and media figures who the posters' anonymous authors claim are gay. On July 2 the Globe, a tabloid paper with a circulation of 1.2 million, reprinted 16 of the posters in an article about Outpost called '''Gay' Stars Stop Traffic.'' Selleck, whose lawyer says the actor has clashed frequently with the Globe over allegations about his sexual orientation, demanded a retraction. When the newspaper refused, he sued its parent company, Globe International Inc. (which also owns the tabloids the Examiner and the Sun). The star of Three Men and a Baby and TV's Magnum P.I. also plans to sue any members of Outpost he can identify.
''I thought suing the tabloid was right,'' says Selleck, 46, on the Chicago set of his new movie, Folks. ''I didn't think in terms of giving them more publicity. There is a very important issue here about how people lie. If truth and justice can still be used in the same sentence and I think they still can then this thing will work itself out just fine.''
But anti-tabloid libel suits can take years, and even when celebrities win, the appeals process often favors the newspaper. Selleck claims he'll persist. ''Sometimes you're in a position where you can financially do something for a lot of people who can't,'' says the actor, who married Jillie Mack three years ago. ''You know, it takes an awful lot of money to pursue one of these lawsuits.''
An awful lot of media glare will hit the case as well. When Selleck's 16-page complaint goes before a judge, the actor will have to prove that the Globe published recklessly. He may also want to establish that being perceived as gay lowers his marquee value that the Globe's statements, according to the suit, ''were intended...to directly injure [him] with respect to his family relationships, reputation, character, profession, trade, or business, among other things.''
''The burden of proof is on the plaintiff,'' says William Rubenstein, director of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights project. ''The newspaper cannot be held liable if there is no actual malice proven or if the statements are true. In a libel suit, truth is an absolute defense, so it could put his sexual orientation on the stand.'' Some speculate that Selleck's suit will never reach court because a trial could invade his privacy far more than he claims the Globe did.
Selleck's claim may rise above $20 million; he will also seek unspecified damages for the ''shame, mortification, hurt feelings, embarrassment and humiliation, and damage to his peace of mind'' that he says the Globe article has caused him. Globe editor Wendy Henry declined to comment, but the paper's lawyer, Paul M. Levy, says, ''We view the article in question to be a fair and accurate report of a newsworthy event.''
Either way, California's cameras-in-the-courtroom policy should
ensure a fascinating TV spectacle and a huge audience though the
trial may not begin for years. By then, the Globe's lawyers may be
spending a lot of time in court: On July 15, former NFL defensive end
Lyle Alzado, who is battling brain cancer, filed a libel suit almost
identical to Selleck's. He'll seek $20 million in damages over a
Globe story alleging that male prostitutes said he is gay.
Cindy Pearlman and Mark Harris