Civil Rights News
By Chuck Taylor
With his own money, KIRO-TV journalist Scott Rensberger last year sued the nation's richest man and Hawaii's giant Dole Food Co. after his arrest on public property the day Microsoft chairman Bill Gates was married.
In an out-of-court settlement announced yesterday, Rensberger has a lot to show for it:
• Undisclosed monetary compensation from Gates and Dole's Lanai Co., which owns most of the island of Lanai and the resort where the wedding took place.
• Letters of apology from Gates and dole chief executive officer David Murdock.
• Charitable donations to Lanai residents worth $127,000 by Dole and Karen Frey, a publicist working for Gates.
• A pledge by Dole to train its security personnel on the island about public property, freedom of the press and other issues.
"It's not easy taking on two of the world's most powerful people," Rensberger said yesterday. "But now I have real respect for the justice system. A small person like myself can take on two powerful people like this and have something good happen."
Rensberger's employer was not a plaintiff. KIRO-TV last year said it was satisfied by an attorney general's consent judgment related to the incident. However, when Rensberger filed his suit, Gates' mother, the late Mary Gates, was a member of the board of the TV station. KIRO-TV now is under different ownership.
A spokeswoman last night said neither Gates nor Frey, who works for the Portland public-relations firm Waggener Edstrom, would comment on the settlement.
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On Jan. 1, 1994, Rensberger, a photographer and reporter for Channel 7, was on a public road in Hulopo'e Beach Park, videotaping for a story about the wedding's impact on Lanai.
As billionaire Gates married Melinda French at the nearby Manele Bay Hotel, Rensberger was arrested and booked for investigation of trespassing, an allegation that was dropped when he agreed - in a phone conversation with Frey - to leave the island.
Rensberger's lawsuit in Maui County Circuit Court alleged invasion of civil rights, false imprisonment and conspiracy by the defendants to deny access to public places.
Security officers for the hotel, with help from local law enforcement, overstepped their authority, the suit alleged, by limiting access to public property and hassling journalists.
Rensberger also alleged that The Lanai Co., the subsidiary of dole that owns the resort, did everything to keep visitors away, such as booking idle rental cars and aircraft.
In February, a judge granted a partial summary judgment with regard to the exercise of free-speech rights. A trial to settle remaining issues was to begin Monday.
"I was prepared to go to trial," Rensberger said by phone from Honolulu. "I spent almost all of my life savings to put myself up here in the hope that a jury would say 'Yes, you're right.'"
But a settlement was reached that Rensberger hoped "would do something good for the community of Lanai."
Under the settlement, disclosed by Rensberger's attorney, Murdock wrote an apology in which he said, "Your efforts to raise important issues surrounding this unfortunate incident confirm the value of a free and open press and the importance of the public's access to information."
Said Gates, in his letter: "If I had known the circumstances of your arrest, I would not have approved of it. I sincerely regret the way you were treated while you were on assignment on Lanai, as well as any harm done to you or your reputation."
Dole will donate $25,000 to Lanaians for Sensible Growth, a community group, for the purpose of starting an independent newspaper or newsletter; $25,000 to Lanai High School for college scholarships; and $10,000 to the Roscoe Pound Foundation, an open-courts advocacy group.
Frey, whose employer is Microsoft's public-relations agency, has agreed to donate 40 computers and Microsoft software worth $67,000 to the high school.
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