Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

U. S. District Court Holds that City Manager, as Public Official, Must Show Actual Malice in Defamation Suit Against Newspaper

In Sparks v. Reneau Publishing, the U. S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas has held that the former city manager for the city of Silsbee, Texas, is a public official for the purposes of his defamation suit against the Silsbee Bee. Mr. Sparks had sued the Bee over articles it printed discussing his conduct in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita. The court found that the newspaper's statements conveyed the substantial gist of discussion about Mr. Sparks' conduct at a council meeting during which the decision was taken to terminate his employment, even though some comments such as “failed to return,” “doesn't come back,” “ran all the way home to Virginia,” “dereliction of duty,” “ordered to return,” and “extended evacuation,” were never said.

The Court began, "This is a libel case. Plaintiff Sparks acted as City Manager for the City of Silsbee, Texas in the late summer and early autumn of 2005. On September 24, 2005, Hurricane Rita struck East Texas, devastating the region. Sparks left Silsbee during a mandatory evacuation on September 22, 2005, choosing to ride out the storm in his native Virginia. Sparks did not return to Silsbee until October 5, 2005. Disappointed with his prolonged absence, after holding a public meeting which featured much criticism of Sparks’ conduct, the City Council unanimously voted to fire Sparks as its City Manager. After his termination, Sparks filed a lawsuit against the City of Silsbee alleging breach of contract, which was ultimately resolved through settlement. The Silsbee Bee, published by Defendant Reneau Publishing, is the local Silsbee newspaper and covered these events. In an October 12, 2005 article titled “Silsbee Council fires city manager,” the paper reported on Sparks’ whereabouts during the evacuation and what occurred at the special public meeting which resulted in Sparks’ termination. The paper chronicled, among other things, that “Dennis Sparks evacuates, doesn't come back” and that Sparks “failed to return following the storm.”...Under Texas law, libel is defined, in relevant part, as (1) a defamation expressed in writing; (2) that tends to injure a living person's reputation; (3) thereby exposing the person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, or financial injury or to impeach any person's honesty, integrity, virtue or reputation....In his capacity as City Manager, Sparks is “among the hierarchy of government employees” and wielded “substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of public affairs.”...Accordingly, Sparks is a public official....For a public official to prevail, he must show that the statements were made with actual malice....

"Truth, of course, is the perfect defense to defamation....The defense of truth “does not require that the alleged defamatory statement is literally true in every detail; substantial truth is sufficient.”... Substantial truth means that if a statement has the same effect on the mind of the average reader as a true statement, then it is not false....If the article correctly conveys the story's gist, but relayed certain details incorrectly, the article will be considered substantially true....The October 12, 2005 article in which Sparks was allegedly first defamed described the public city council meeting which resulted in Sparks’ termination. Having read the article, the Court can fairly say that its gist can be summed up as “Sparks was terminated at the end of that meeting for his failure to quickly return to Silsbee following Hurricane Rita.” Defendants produced the minutes of the October 7th City Council session. The minutes show citizens and board members criticizing Sparks for failing to promptly return to the city. At approximately 8:45 p.m., the Council recessed into executive session to consider what action, if any, should be taken regarding Sparks. After the executive session, the Council unanimously voted to terminate Sparks. The minutes reflect Mayor Muckleroy explaining the decision: “It's not that you left, it's that we felt you should have came back a lot sooner and you were told that you were needed. You were in your rights to leave, but time element is our factor. The feelings of Council is that better efforts should have been made by you to help us get on track.”... Factually, the article fairly relays the substantial truth of its subject. Sparks' argument appears to be that the Silsbee Bee unfairly played up his absence as an allegation of cowardice, shirking, abandoning ship, or, in the parlance of our times, “cutting and running.” Sparks argues that the phrases used in the article, such as “failed to return,” “doesn't come back,” “ran all the way home to Virginia,” “dereliction of duty,” “ordered to return,” and “extended evacuation” were never uttered during the meeting, and thus the Silsbee Bee’s reporting of such action was false. Of course, those phrases were not included in the articles as direct quotes from meeting. They merely serve the purpose of informing the public about what happened at the meeting, well within the usual journalistic license needed to articulately describe events. Sparks alleges that the statements blaming Sparks’ termination on his failure to return amounts to a “libelous cover-up that Reneau printed to apparently shield the Mayor for taking over Sparks’ responsibilities” but fails to offer sufficient facts to back up that assertion....The gist of the article is that Sparks was terminated because he failed to promptly return after evacuating the city. The underlying facts corroborate the article's gist as the substantial truth. The other articles Sparks complains of rely on the same basis as the initial article, and thus are equally substantially true."
Ultimately, concluded the Court, "Sparks has failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact regarding the falsity of the statements published by The Silsbee Bee as well as the malice with which those statements were allegedly made. His libel claim must fail, and defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law."
The case is Sparks v. Reneau Publishing, 35 Med. L. Rptr 2185, decided Aug. 2, 2007.
See here for an additional post regarding this case.

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