Court: Texas Supreme Court
Date Filed: Jan. 16, 2024
Background: In 2021, Tonya Barina filed a defamation lawsuit against Netflix and investigative documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney over “Guardians, Inc.,” an episode about the U.S. guardianship system that aired as part of the investigative series “Dirty Money.”
The episode reported on the history, law, and mechanics of guardianships, and it discussed the legal fights surrounding two adult men under legal guardianship, including Texas millionaire Charlie Thrash, whose estate was handled by Barina. In her lawsuit, Barina claimed that “Guardians, Inc.” created a “false narrative” that made her appear exploitative, and that Netflix should be held liable for defamation for allegedly omitting facts that she believes would have presented her in a more favorable light.
Netflix moved to dismiss the lawsuit under the Texas Citizen Participation Act, the state’s anti-SLAPP law, which allows courts to quickly dismiss meritless lawsuits designed to chill speech.
The trial court denied Netflix’s motion to dismiss. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth District of Texas at San Antonio affirmed the trial court’s decision. The appeals court held, among other things, that the “gist” of the episode featuring Barina was false and defamatory, basing its conclusion primarily on information not included in the program.
Netflix is now seeking review of that decision by the Texas Supreme Court. Given the importance of the issues — particularly the question of how a court analyzes whether reporting is substantially true when that reporting is indisputably accurate but the plaintiff nevertheless claims the gist of it is false and defamatory based on purported omissions — the Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the petition. (Gibney is a member of RCFP’s Steering Committee. He did not participate in the Reporters Committee’s decision to file a brief in this case or contribute to the preparation or submission of the brief.)
Our Position: The Texas Supreme Court should grant review of the case and reverse the lower court’s ruling. The state Supreme Court’s intervention is needed not only to correct the lower court’s errors but also to clarify the application of defamation law in Texas to claims like the one here that is threatening to free speech.
- The lower court’s misapplication of Texas substantial truth law in this defamation-by-gist case, if not corrected, will jeopardize investigative reporting in the public interest.
- The lower court decision’s analysis of the program was flawed in numerous respects and its conclusion, based on that erroneous analysis, that the program is defamatory warrants reversal.
- Vital investigative journalism becomes difficult, if not impossible, when publishers fear they may be forced to defend against elusive claims of reputational harm by persons offended or embarrassed by reporting on matters of public concern. Such defamation claims are akin to the “false light” cause of action that the Texas Supreme Court over 20 years ago declined to recognize because it threatened to chill important speech.
Quote: “If permitted to stand, the lower court’s decision will not only chill investigative documentary filmmaking but also will threaten a broad range of investigative journalism in the public interest in Texas.”
Update: On Jan. 26, 2024, the Texas Supreme Court denied Netflix’s petition for review of the Court of Appeals decision.