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Libel suit against HBO dismissed over proof of actual malice

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         TEXAS         Libel         May 11, 2000    

Libel suit against HBO dismissed over proof of actual malice

  • The Texas Supreme Court held that even though Texas law makes it more difficult for media defendants to obtain summary judgment, a judge who claimed HBO libelled him presented no evidence of actual malice and his case must be dismissed.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled in early May that Harris County Judge Charles Dean Huckabee did not raise any facts that showed HBO defamed him with actual malice when it aired “Women on Trial,” a documentary about southeast Texas mothers who lost custody of their children after alleging abuse by their fathers.

The state’s high court said the report could not have libeled the former family court judge in Houston, whose rulings in two cases were among those it described. Affidavits from the film’s director Lee Grant, her researchers and the HBO executive who worked with her showed the filmmakers had no reason to believe that any of the reporting was false. The court affirmed the ruling of an appeals court in Houston.

After Sandra Hebert’s 4-year-old son Wayne returned with an injured penis from a visit to his father, telling her, a police officer and a social worker that his father had caused the injury, Hebert asked the Harris County Court to restrict the visitation rights of her ex-husband Michael Hebert.

But after a three-day hearing in 1988, Huckabee instead issued a temporary order giving custody of Wayne to Michael Hebert with no visitation by Sandra Hebert, even though the ex-husband had not asked for custody or for his ex-wife to have no contact with the child.. An appeals court refused to overturn the order and it was still in effect in 1992 when “Women on Trial” aired.

The documentary also detailed a second case in which Huckabee denied a woman access to her children after she accused her husband of abuse.

The high court said that even if parts of the documentary were false — and it would not make that determination — there was no evidence of any actual malice in the reporting. However, the court refused to adopt the federal standard for summary judgment in defamation cases involving public figures. That standard requires a public figure to present “clear and convincing evidence” of defamation with actual malice before the court will allow a libel trial to be scheduled. In Texas a public figure can still have libel trial unless, as in this case, there is “no evidence” that actual malice occurred, the state’s high court ruled..

Huckabee said HBO and the production company had desired to portray him in an unflattering light citing internal documents describing him as “a corrupt judge,” but the court said nothing in these records suggested that the journalists had any doubt about the truthfulness of the film. He said the documentary included “editorial omissions” because it did not include portions of an interview with him and evidence from others that Michael Hebert had not injured his son, but the court said the law does not require the filmmakers to convey his interview.

Huckabee said that the filmmakers “purposely avoided” facts that would have shown their story false, but the court noted the filmmakers had interviewed many persons on both sides of the story. The court rejected Huckabee’s argument that HBO’s legal counsel’s extensive review of the documentary represented “institutional doubt” as to its accuracy. Finally, the court specifically rejected Huckabee’s claim that the film falsely portrayed him as making more than two such rulings and that it overstated the problem in Houston family courts.

A dissenting judge said Huckabee had presented “some evidence” of actual malice, and should be given an opportunity to provide “clear and convincing evidence” of actual malice before the court ruled that he could not have a trial.

(Huckabee v. Time Warner Entertainment Co.; Media attorney: Julie Ford, Austin)

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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