Texas high court finds satire not libelous

Libel | Feature | September 10, 2004

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Texas high court finds satire not libelous

  • The Supreme Court of Texas dismissed a libel suit filed over a satirical news story ruling that a reasonable person would not mistake the story as true, though some people might believe it true.

Sep. 10, 2004 -- A news parody that might be believed by some readers, but not a "reasonable" person, cannot be the basis of a successful libel lawsuit, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled last week.

The court also held that the issue of "actual malice" -- knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of the truth -- turns on whether the newspaper knew readers would believe the story was true, not whether the satirical statements themselves were true.

The decision has important implications for non-satirical reporting as well because the court requires an allegedly libelous statement to be examined as a whole and in context, said James Hemphill, the Dallas Observer's attorney.

The story, published by the Observer on Nov. 11, 1999, parodied the real-life arrest and five-day detainment of 13-year-old Ponder High School student Christopher Beamon. For a Halloween school assignment, Beamon wrote a story describing the shooting deaths of a teacher and two students. Although his teacher gave him a grade of 100 on the project and awarded extra credit for reading it aloud in class, the school principal called juvenile authorities and had Beamon removed from school.

Juvenile Court Judge Darlene Whitten sentenced Beamon to ten days in a juvenile detention center for making "terroristic threats." She later approved his release after five days and District Attorney Bruce Isaacks declined to prosecute the case.

In the Observer story, titled "Stop the madness," a 6-year-old is arrested, shackled and detained because her book report on Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" is deemed to contain "terroristic threats." The story included fictitious quotes from Whitten, Isaacks, then-Gov. George W. Bush and ACLU spokeswoman Emily Whitfield.

Whitten and Isaacks demanded an apology and a retraction. One week after the story ran, the Observer explained that the piece was a joke, and said anyone who believed it was "clueless" or "cerebrally challenged." Whitten and Isaacks filed suit for libel against the newspaper, writer Rose Farley and two editors. The defendants moved to have the suit dismissed.

The trial court refused to dismiss the case and the Court of Appeals affirmed twice, on May 29, 2001, and Nov. 21, 2001. The Court of Appeals held that there was evidence that a reasonable reader might believe the story to be true and that the defendants knew or strongly suspected that the article was false and defamatory.

The Association of American Publishers, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 14 other media and First Amendment organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

On Sept. 3 the Supreme Court of Texas reversed 8-0, ordering that Whitten and Isaacks could not recover for libel.

Justice Wallace B. Jefferson explained that the First Amendment requires that for satire to be libelous, it must be "reasonably understood as stating actual fact." The court held that although some intelligent people might have believed the story to be true, when read as a whole the story was too improbable for that belief to be reasonable.

The court also held that, as public figures, Whitten and Isaacks would have to show that the article was published with "actual malice," meaning that the Observer knew or had reckless disregard for whether the article "could reasonable be interpreted as stating actual facts," not whether the publisher knew or had reckless disregard for whether the statements were true or not.

Mike Whitten, who represented his wife and Isaacks in the case, told the Associated Press he may ask the court for a rehearing. The case could also be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

(New Times, Inc. v. Isaacks; Media Counsel: James A. Hemphill, Graves, Dougherty, Heardon & Moody, Austin) -- GP

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