NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · TEXAS · Libel · June 20, 2006
Libel case over incorrect sex offender story dismissed
June 20, 2006 · Two news media organizations that incorrectly identified a man as a sex offender are protected from a libel lawsuit by the fair report privilege because they accurately reported what police officials told them, the Texas Court of Appeals in Eastland ruled Thursday in dismissing the suit.
Despite the incorrect information about Jose Spencer Sotelo, who is not a sex offender, KWES-TV 9, the Odessa American and reporter David Jay Lee are immune from liability for libel because they obtained the incorrect information from an Odessa Police Department news release.
The court applied the legal standard that in situations of public concern where information comes from an official report, a fair report privilege exists if “the [news] report is accurate and complete or a fair abridgment of the occurrence reported.”
“After comparing the newspaper article and the broadcasts to the news release issued by [the Odessa Police Department], we find that both the newspaper article and the broadcasts were accurate and complete reports, or a fair abridgement, of the news release,” Chief Justice Jim R. Wright wrote for a three-judge panel.
John Bussian, an attorney representing Freedom Communications Inc., which owns the American, called the ruling “a double-barreled win for the press” because, he said, the court recognized for the first time in Texas both an “unconditional First Amendment right to fairly and accurately report what the government tells the press and the Texas . . . statutory privilege to do the same thing.”
Specifically, the court recognized that the federal privilege applies when government statements or information are repeated “regardless of publishing motive . . . so long as its done with substantial accuracy,” Bussian said.
Such a privilege is lost when the communication is made with malice, Wright noted in the ruling. Sotelo sued the newspaper and television station for libel in 2005 after news reports incorrectly labeled him as a sex offender. The reporters relied on a police news release that included Sotelo’s name and two arrest warrants — neither for sex offenses — to report about a police check into whether sex offenders had registered with police as required by law. Sotelo’s photo ran with the stories.
The decision extends the protection recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court to press releases “in the same fashion that it protects court records and court proceedings,” Bussian said.
(Freedom Communications Inc. v. Sotelo; Media counsel: John A. Bussian III, Raleigh, N.C. (for Freedom Communications) and James M. McCown, Jackson Walker, Dallas, (for Midessa Television)) — BW