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Louisiana State Univ.

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Friday, January 20, 2006

Texas Court of Appeals Reverses Trial Court in Libel Action Against Publisher

The Texas Court of Appeals, First District, has reversed a lower court in a defamation action against Harvest House Publishers brought by a church which claimed that the publisher had labelled it a cult in the Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions written by John Weldon and John Ankerberg and published by Harvest House. Harvest House had moved for summary judgment, which the trial court denied. The appeals court ruled that the material complained of was not as a matter of law defamatory.

"...Under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, civil courts are prohibited from deciding theological matters, or interpreting religious doctrine, or making matters of religious belief the subject of tort liability...we conclude that being labeled a "cult" is not actionable because the truth or falsity of the statement depends upon one's religious beliefs, a matter which cannot and should not be tried in a court of law.

"...The church contends that some of the conduct mentioned in connection with the characteristics of cults--prostitution, rape, beating, molesting children, drug smuggling, and murder--are facts that can be proven false, and, therefore, are actionable under Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co...The publisher and authors, however, argue that the characteristics of cults--including the criminal acts that the church contends are provable as false..."cannot reasonably be interpreted to defame every group in the book." In other words, the publisher and authors argue that the second element of a defamation--that a defamatory statement was made concerning the plaintiff--cannot be met. We agree. If a statement does not concern appellants, it cannot defame them, nor can it injure their reputations....Under the group libel doctrine, a plaintiff has no cause of action for a defamatory statement directed to some or less than all of the group when there is nothing to single out the plaintiff.

"...The gist of the church's complaint is that, by calling it a "cult" and including a chapter on it in the book, the publisher and authors have accused it of every "immoral, illegal and despicable action" mentioned in the book. However, as we stated earlier, under the group libel doctrine, a plaintiff has no cause of action for a defamatory statement directed to some or less than all of the group when there is nothing to single out the plaintiff. We have already held that nothing in the book singles out the church as having committed the "immonral, illegal, and despicable" actions alleged in its petition. Simply being included in a group with others who may have committed such "immoral, illegal and despicable" actions does not give rise to a libel claim....Because the allegedly libel statements are not defamatory, as a matter of law, we sustain the publisher and authors' first issue on appeal. Accordingly, we need not address the remaining issues and decline to do so. We reverse the judgment of the trial court and render judgment that the church take nothing from the publisher and authors."

Read the entire ruling here.                                                   

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/media_law_prof_blog/2006/01/texas_court_of__1.html

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