Another media libel case involving a controversial public figure is scheduled to go to trial this morning in the United States District Court in Manhattan. Former Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon has filed a $50 million suit against Time magazine. He says the news magazine defamed him in an article last year by suggesting he had encouraged Lebanese militiamen to carry out the massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in the Lebanese capitol of Beirut in 1982.
In an article on the findings of an Israeli commission that looked into the massacre, in which between 700 and 800 people were killed, Time said that Mr. Sharon had ''reportedly discussed with the Gemayals the need for the Phalangists to take revenge for the assasination of Bashir (Gemayel), but the details of the conversation are not known.''
Like Gen. William C. Westmoreland, whose $120 million libel trial against CBS continues in the same building, Sharon is a public figure. Thus he must prove, not only that what Time published was false, but that there was ''reckless disregard'' for the truth.
The rise in the number of libel suits is not necessarily because the press is acting irresponsibly, says Charles Sims of the American Civil Liberties Union. Rather, Mr. Sims says, it may stem from an ''underlying perception'' the US Supreme Court has given in the last 10 years that they give wavering support to libel laws, with substantial effect on First Amendment protections.
The case will be heard by Judge Abraham D. Sofaer. A jury has already been selected. On Thursday, Judge Sofaer turned down Time's motion to dismiss the trial. On Friday, depositions in pretrial discovery were still being taken.