Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Texas Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Houston Chronicle; No Actual Malice in Story About Smith County Prosecutors

In Hearst Corporation v. Skeen, the Texas Supreme Court has granted summary judgment for the Houston Chronicle, reversing the Court of Appeals. Three Smith County prosecutors had claimed that the paper had defamed them when it published articles which "reported that Smith County `is noted for its own brand of justice,' which is `driven by aggressive prosecutors who achieve some of the state's longest sentences.'" One of the articles commented, "`Critics say Smith County's justice system is tainted and inequitable.' It also declared that Smith County prosecutors `have been accused of serious infractions' including `suppressing evidence, encouraging perjury and practicing selective prosecution.'"

The three prosecutors named filed suit for defamation, the trial court denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment, and the court of appeals affirmed. Said the Supreme Court, "...[W]e need not decide whether the article was actually false to resolve this appeal. The plaintiffs can prevail here only if there is some evidence that Hearst and Moore [the reporter] published the article with actual malice. To establish actual malice, the plaintiffs must prove Hearst and Moore published the article with either knowledge of the falsity or reckless disregard for the truth...Knowledge of falsity is a relatively clear standard, but reckless disregard is much less so...Reckless disregard is a subjective standard, requiring evidence that Hearst and Moore entertained serious doubts as to the truth of the article at the time it was published. A libel defendant is entitled to summary judgment under Texas law if it can negate actual malice as a matter of law. Hearst and Moore supported their motion for summary judgment with numerous exhibits....Having negated actual malice, the burden shifted to the plaintiffs to raise a fact issue. The plaintiffs contend that Moore knew the article was false because the ten cases discussed in the article were a relatively insignificant sample from which to conclude that the Smith County D. A.'s office routinely engaged in unethical practices...The fact that Moore had not reviewed every indictment during D. A. Skeen's not evidence that he knew the article contained false statements. Arguing the article was published with reckless disregard for the truth, the plaintiffs claim Hearst and Moore purposefully avoided the truth..."A failure to investigate fully is not evidence of actual malice; a purposeful avoidance of the truth is." Bentley, 94 S. W. 3d at 596. We analyzed evidence of purposeful avoidance in Bentley...In contrast we held in Huckabee that the purposeful avoidance theory did not apply because "no source could easily have proved or disproved the "documentary's allegations." ...Like the filmmakers' research in Huckabee, Moore's five months of research involved interviewing parties on both sides of the issue...Furthermore, no source existed that could have easily disproved the criticisms of the Smith County D. A. 's office...The evidence simply does not support a purposeful avoidance theory."

Further, the Supreme Court found that the reporter "had many sources corroborating the criticisms of the Smith County D. A.'s office. Moore testified that he spoke to over twenty attorneys, who told him that the Smith County D. A.'s office: was too aggressive; was too closely aligned with law enforcement; was overly influenced by prominence of the victim or accused; had sentences that were harsh or excessive as compared to other jurisdictions; and had suppressed evidence or encouraged false testimony to win convictions. Although most onditioned their responses on anonymity, several attorneys, inluding perhaps most significantly a former Smith County D. A., allowed their names to appear in the article."  Read the entire opinion here.

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