In Texas, Plaintiff Wade Brady brought claims for libel and libel per se against Carter Publications, Inc., publisher of the newspaper West Fort Bend Star, and one of its writers, LeaAnne Klentzman. Wade alleged that the defendants published an article in a “malicious” attempt to portray him as a criminal who used his the connections of his father, the Chief Deputy for the Sheriff’s office, to avoid certain charges.
Specifically, the article at issue described certain actions allegedly taken by Chief Brady after Wade was ticketed and charged with being a minor in possession of alcohol. The article claimed that the ticketing officers were intimidated by Chief Brady, and described several encounters between Wade and law enforcement.
In one encounter, deputies stopped Wade and his friend in their vehicle for littering. The deputies reportedly smelled what they believed was alcohol, resulting in Wade receiving a ticket for being minor in possession of alcohol. The article alleged that Chief Brady continually made contact with the ticketing officers, and that the officers were intimidated when Chief Brady demanded all audio tapes and notes from that incident in their possession.
In another encounter, officers allegedly followed Wade and his brother, Cullen, to Chief Brady’s driveway. The article reported that a video of the incident revealed that Wade “so unruly and intoxicated” that he was handcuffed and placed into the backseat of the police car. When a sheriff alerted Chief Brady over the county’s official radio system, the county’s dispatcher purportedly could be heard attempting not to broadcast Cullen’s name.
Based on these encounters, the article stated that it should be “glaringly apparent why the officers [who ticketed Wade] were intimidated” by Chief Brady’s actions.
At trial, the jury found that some of the statements in the article were defamatory. The jury made this determination after it was (erroneously) instructed that the defendants bore the burden of proving that the challenged statements were substantially true. Additionally, while the jury concluded that Klentzman had acted with malice, it did not make a finding that she acted with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. Rather, the jury was (erroneously) instructed that “malice” was defined to require an intent to cause injury or conscious indifference of the risk.
The court of appeal held that the jury charge was erroneous by placing the burden of proving truth on the defendants, and by misstating the actual malice standard, which should have been knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.
As such, the appellate court held that a new trial was warranted.
The Texas Supreme Court granted the parties’ petitions for review, and focused on the “threshold question” of whether the article embraced matters of public concern. The Court explained that speech embraces matters of public concern if “it can be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community.” Such matters encompass subjects of legitimate new interest, crimes and the resulting prosecutions and judicial proceedings, as well as the disclosure of misbehavior by public officials, especially when it concerns the operation of the police department. Based on these principles, the Court concluded that the article’s claims of intimidation by the Chief Brady embraced a matter of public concern.
As such, the Court concluded that because the statements related to a matter of public concern, the First Amendment required Wade, as the plaintiff, to prove that the statements were false. The Court further held that the First Amendment required a finding of actual malice on the part of the defendants.
In reaching its decision, the Court found that there was a “logical nexus” between the details of the reported encounters and Chief Brady’s purported use of authority on Wade’s behalf. Equally important, the Court further observed that courts should not “get involved in deciding the newsworthiness of specific details in a newsworthy story where the details were ‘substantially related’ to the story” or “make editorial decisions for the media regarding information directly related to matters of public concern.” Moreover, that portions of the article may have contained false information or omitted key information did not alter that the statements related to a matter of public concern.
The Court agreed that a new trial was appropriate.