• Texas Supreme Court Holds That Reporter's Extensive Research Did Not Amount to Purposeful Avoidance, Thus No Actual Malice
  • April 14, 2005
  • Law Firm: Frost Brown Todd LLC - Louisville Office
  • The Houston Chronicle published several articles in a series titled, "Justice under Fire" which criticized the Smith County criminal justice system. One article subtitled, "Win at all costs is Smith County's rule, critics claim," included the following statements: (1)"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"; and (2) "Critics say Smith County's justice system is tainted and inequitable." The article also alleged that Smith County prosecutors had been "accused of serious infractions including suppressing evidence, encouraging perjury and practicing selective prosecution."

    The three Smith County prosecutors that were named in the articles filed a defamation suit against the reporter and the newspaper. Hearst Corp. v. Skeen, 2005 Tex. LEXIS 207 (March 11, 2005).

    The trial court denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment, and the court of appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment. The Texas Supreme Court reversed the findings of the lower courts, holding that the plaintiffs could not show that the defendants acted with actual malice.

    Under Texas law, a libel defendant is entitled to summary judgment if it can negate actual malice as a matter of law. Defendants offered numerous exhibits and an affidavit stating that the reporter believed the article was true and accurate based on his extensive research. Once the defendants have negated actual malice, the burden then shifts to plaintiffs to raise a fact issue. The plaintiffs responded that the reporter knew the article was false because the cases relied upon by defendants were an insignificant sample of all the County's cases and that the reporter focused only on the problem cases he discovered. The court found that the reporter's reliance on a few cases was insufficient proof that the reporter knew that the article contained false statements.

    The plaintiffs also argued that the article was published with reckless disregard for the truth, claiming that defendants purposefully avoided the truth, relied on dubious information from bias sources, deviated from professional standards of care, and were motivated to fabricate. Focusing on the issue of purposeful avoidance, the court relied on case law providing that "a failure to investigate fully is not evidence of actual malice; a purposeful avoidance of the truth is." The court ultimately found that the evidence in this case did not support a purposeful avoidance theory, since the reporter spent five months researching the issue, interviewed parties on both sides, including several attorneys, and reviewed court records of the cases that were discussed in the article.

    The plaintiffs also alleged that defendants recklessly disregarded the truth by ignoring letters by the plaintiffs questioning the truth of the article that were sent two days before the article's publication deadline. Again, the court disagreed, considering, among other things, that the defendants incorporated statements from the letters in the article.

    The court ultimately decided that the plaintiffs raised no fact issue as to whether the article was published with actual malice. Accordingly, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, reversing the court of appeals' decision.