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Talk show host liable in defamation case involving public figure

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         TEXAS         Libel         Sep 11, 2002    

Talk show host liable in defamation case involving public figure

  • An appellate court found that a local cable show host defamed a judge, overcoming the heightened protections for commentary about public officials.

The Texas Supreme Court upheld a defamation finding Aug. 29 against a television host who accused a state judge of corruption.

The case marks one of the first times that the Texas high court has upheld a finding of constitutional actual malice for statements about a public figure, according to Texas media lawyer James Hemphill.

In a lengthy opinion addressing numerous issues on appeal, the court held that Joe Ed Bunton, the host of a talk show, “Q & A,” which appeared on public access television in 1995 and 1996, had carried out a “personal vendetta” against Judge Bascom Bentley III, a district court judge in Palestine, Texas. The court approved the jury’s finding that Bunton acted with actual malice when he made public accusations of corruption against Judge Bentley.

A plaintiff must prove actual malice in order to win a libel suit against a public figure, such as a judge. “Actual malice” is defined knowledge of, or reckless disregard for, the falsity of a statement. The court’s opinion recounts that Bunton reported numerous times on his show that Judge Bentley was “corrupt,” and that Bunton invited TV viewers to share examples of the judge’s corruption on the air. Bunton also called the judge was lazy and incompetent.

Evidence in the trial showed that Bunton admitted he could not prove his theory about Bentley’s corruption and that he knew the judge denied the allegations made against him. Bunton “expressed doubt to a friend that there was any basis for the charges he was making” and “deliberately ignored people who could have answered all of his questions,” according to the court.

The court affirmed the reversal of the jury’s defamation finding against Bunton’s co-host, Jackie Gates, who never used the word “corrupt” in describing Judge Bentley, although Gates had expressed agreement with his co-host’s accusations. The court called the decision to relieve Gates of liability a “close” call.

While allowing the defamation finding to stand, the Texas Supreme Court asked the lower court to reassess the $8 million award that the jury imposed on Bunton. The court expressed concern about the jury’s decision to award $7 million in damages for mental anguish and $1 for punitive damages.

The eight Justices who participated in the decision were split on the various issues addressed by Justice Hecht, who wrote the main opinion for the court. Only five Justices agreed with the central finding that Bunton acted with actual malice. One Justice dissented from the entire opinion.

Bunton told reporters he plans to file a motion for reconsideration with the Texas Supreme Court.

(Bentley v. Bunton; Media counsel: pro se) WT

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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