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Speaking out on base closure leads to public-figure status

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         TEXAS         Libel         Feb 4, 2000    

Speaking out on base closure leads to public-figure status

  • A private citizen and organization that challenged a military base closure plan in court put themselves in the middle of a public controversy and became public figures for purposes of that controversy.

A person and an organization that put themselves “in the middle of a public controversy” are limited-purpose public figures in a libel suit against a local newspaper and radio station, a three-judge panel of the Texas Court of Appeals found in late January. They must therefore prove that the media organizations acted with “actual malice” — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.

In an unpublished opinion, the court ultimately found that “Every statement by the [San Antonio] Express News and Waterman Broadcasting complained upon on appeal is germane to a public controversy that had wide-spread significance to the City of San Antonio.”

In 1995, officials announced they would close Kelly Air Force Base. In reaction to the announcement, the San Antonio City Council created an organization to oversee the redevelopment of the base through the private sector. Patrick LaCombe and Senior Resources, a nonprofit corporation based in San Antonio that assists the poor, were critical of the planned remedy — a plan approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development — asserting in federal court that the plan failed to consider the legal rights of the homeless. The dispute became a matter of public discussion, and news coverage of the controversy ensued.

In late June 1998, LaCombe and Senior Resources filed suit in trial court in Bexar County against the San Antonio Express-News and Waterman Broadcasting Corporation of America Inc. for libel and slander.

The trial court dismissed the suit against both media groups. LaCombe and Senior Resources appealed the dismissal of their case, arguing that the trial court erred in concluding they were public figures and there was no “malice” in the radio broadcast.

The appellate court found that LaCombe is properly characterized as limited public figure. Among the court’s consideration was whether the person “has more than a trivial or tangential role” in a “sufficiently public” controversy and the alleged defamation “is germane to” his participation in the controversy.

“LaCombe put himself and Senior Resources in the middle of a public controversy. The base closure was a matter of considerable significance to the entire city of San Antonio and as LaCombe admitted in his deposition, a matter of public interest. He invited further public scrutiny by appearing on KTSA Radio to defend his actions,” explained the court.

Furthermore, the court ruled, the case was properly dismissed because the Express-News and Waterman disproved actual malice.

As for the series of alleged defamatory statements printed by the Express News, the court found that the statements at issue were “not capable of a defamatory meaning.”

“In our case, none of the statements complained of by appellants are reasonably capable of defamatory meaning. None of the statements read in context accuse LaCombe of any illegal or unethical dealings, ” stated the court.

(LaCombe v. San Antonio Express-News)

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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