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State high court clarifies libel protection for headlines

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   TEXAS   ·   Libel   ·   Sep. 21, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   TEXAS   ·   Libel   ·   Sep. 21, 2005


State high court clarifies libel protection for headlines

  • Headlines must only rationally interpret a speaker’s meaning and do not have to convey it verbatim, according to a decision reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of Texas.

Sep. 21, 2005  ·   Texas libel law includes protection for newspaper headlines, the state high court ruled in a June decision, reaffirmed earlier this month, that a headline writer did not act with actual malice in using a paraphrased quote from a story for the headline.

“It’s a huge win for the newspaper industry,” attorney John A. Bussian III, who represented The Brownsville Herald in the case, said of the original June decision. “It’s providing a new liability test for headline writing. This new test allows for headline writers to paraphrase and characterize what people say. If headline writers had to repeat the speaker verbatim, they’d be out of work.”

In determining whether The Brownsville Herald was liable for actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth — the high court clarified a legal test as applied to headlines that looks at “whether an altered statement could constitute some evidence of actual malice if a reasonable reader could understand the passage as the speaker’s actual words (not a paraphrase), and the alteration was material,” Justice Scott A. Brister wrote for the unanimous court in the June decision. “The reasonable-reader standard is objective rather than subjective, and presumes a hypothetical reader of ordinary intelligence who reads an entire article in context.”

The court denied the plaintiff’s request Sept. 2 for a rehearing of the June 24 decision dismissing a libel claim against The Brownsville Herald brought by Conrado Cantu, the former sheriff of Cameron County.

The Herald wrote an Oct. 5, 2000, article on a candidate debate headlined: “Cantu: No Anglo can be sheriff of Cameron County.” Cantu never uttered those actual words, but during the debate he commented on his and his opponent’s ethnic backgrounds. A trial court and subsequent appeals court denied the Herald’s request for summary judgment, ruling that a jury could find evidence of actual malice through the Herald’s characterization of Cantu’s comments. The Supreme Court granted the summary judgment, stating: “Cantu must present some evidence that the Herald misinterpreted his remarks on purpose, or in circumstances so improbable that only a reckless publisher would have made the mistake.”

Alterations of a speaker’s words within quotes can be evidence of actual malice, but, according Brister, “the [Supreme] Court rejected the notion that every alteration of a speaker’s words was some evidence of actual malice.”

A ” reasonable reader would have understood the Herald’s reports to be a paraphrase or interpretation of Cantu’s remarks. Accordingly, proof that he did not make the exact remark attributed to him, standing alone, is no evidence of actual malice,” Brister wrote.

Bussian said that this ruling provides added libel protection for Texas newspapers. In order for a plaintiff to prevail in a libel case over a disagreement about the meaning of a headline, the plaintiff would not only have to prove that the newspaper’s interpretation of the speaker’s statements was irrational, but also prove the newspaper still printed the story with actual malice.

“It’s no longer enough to say the press simply misinterpreted the story in an irrational way,” Bussian said. “They need evidence of actual malice.”

(Freedom Newspapers of Texas v. Cantu; Media counsel: John A. Bussian III, The Bussian Law Firm, Raleigh, N.C.)CM


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