NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · TEXAS · Libel · July 1, 2005
Candidate’s libel suit over paraphrased statements dismissed
July 1, 2005 · A candidate for sheriff in Cameron County, Texas, did not prove that paraphrased statements in a story about him in The Brownsville Herald were printed with actual malice, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled last week in dismissing a lawsuit.
Conrado Cantu sued the paper in 2001, claiming it mischaracterized statements he made in a 2000 political debate while running for sheriff in a predominately Hispanic county.
Cantu argued that his opponent would not be able to relate to the neighborhood residents because he is not Hispanic.
In comments about the area’s crime problem, Cantu said, “How are you going to relate to these people, in Spanish, and make them understand that they need to stop or we are going to put a stop to it in their neighborhoods.
“You have to be bicultural to understand what is going on in our neighborhoods,” he also said.
The Brownsville Herald ran a story the next day paraphrased Cantu’s statements. The story began: “No Anglo can be sheriff of Cameron County, Conrado Cantu said Wednesday during a debate with his opponent Terry Vinson in the race for the county’s top law enforcement office.”
The Supreme Court of Texas overruled the trial and appellate courts in dismissing Cantu’s libel claim.
Justice Scott Brister wrote for the unanimous court that if a reasonable reader thought the sentence was a direct quote instead of a paraphrase, Cantu might be able to prove falsity. The court ruled that reasonable readers would not believe the statement was a quote because no quotation marks were used, the reporter used a predictable pattern of inserting quotes throughout the story, and the newspaper ran a follow-up article the next day in which Cantu clarified he never made that exact statement.
In applying the actual malice standard, the court ruled that Cantu could not show that the paper misinterpreted his remarks on purpose or with reckless disregard for the truth.
“Actual malice concerns the defendant’s attitude toward the truth, not toward the plaintiff,” the court wrote. “Nothing in the Constitution requires the press to adopt favorable attitude toward public figures.”
In an interview with The Herald, Publisher Daniel Cavazos said Cantu’s lawyer, Ernesto Gamez, had been overconfident about the case.
“When Mr. Gamez filed this case for Mr. Cantu, he told a television reporter that he didn’t know how The Herald would be able to defend itself,” Cavazos said. “Thanks to the Texas Supreme Court and The First Amendment, we not only found a way, but have prevailed in disposing of this legally silly action.”
(Freedom Newspapers of Texas v. Cantu, Media Counsel: Jeffery T. Nobles, Beirne Maynard & Parsons LLP, Houston, Tex.) — AG