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High court finds lack of actual malice in newspaper's criticism of prosecutors

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    News Media Update         TEXAS         Libel         March 17, 2005    

High court finds lack of actual malice in newspaper’s criticism of prosecutors

  • A libel claim brought by three county prosecutors failed for lack of proof that a Houston Chronicle story was published with actual malice, the state Supreme Court found.

March 17, 2005 — The Houston Chronicle did not publish a June 2000 article critical of a county criminal justice system with actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth — the Texas Supreme Court ruled unanimously last week.

The defamation suit was brought against the Chronicle after reporter Evan Moore, in an article headlined “Justice Under Fire,” criticized three Smith County prosecutors including District Attorney Jack Skeen. The article, which was accompanied by a series of three articles about specific cases, reported: “Critics say Smith County’s justice system is tainted and inequitable,” and that prosecutors “have been accused of serious infractions” including “suppressing evidence, encouraging perjury and practicing selective prosecution,” according to the March 11 ruling.

Skeen and his associates sued Moore and Hearst Corp., owner of the Chronicle, for defamation, claiming that they purposefully avoided the truth and relied on biased sources. The trial court and the Texas State Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that the article was libelous.

In overturning the lower courts, the Supreme Court wrote that to “establish actual malice, [Skeen] must prove Hearst and Moore published the article with either knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. An understandable misinterpretation of ambiguous facts does not show actual malice.”

“Moore had many sources corroborating the criticisms of the Smith County D.A.’s office,” said the ruling. Those sources included a former Smith County District Attorney and numerous anonymous sources. The court, rejecting Skeen’s claim that Moore did not investigate well enough, noted that a “failure to investigate fully is not evidence of actual malice.”

(Hearst Corp. v Skeen, Gregory S. Coleman, Joel R. White, William W. Ogden, Austin, Texas)AB


© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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