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Texas state appeals court dismisses defamation suit against television news station

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A Texas state appeals court has concluded that a trial court wrongly denied a local television news station’s attempt to…

A Texas state appeals court has concluded that a trial court wrongly denied a local television news station’s attempt to dismiss under the state’s anti-SLAPP law a defamation suit filed against it by a former charter school operator.

A three-justice panel of the Texas Court of Appeals in Houston found that there was nothing inherently defamatory in reports by ABC affiliate KTRK Television, Inc. concerning Benji’s Special Education Academy. The panel concluded that allegations by the charter school’s founder, Theaola Robinson, that the news station’s reports implied she embezzled $3 million lacked sufficient proof and should be dismissed.

“There is nothing intrinsically defamatory about KTRK’s reports on the State’s investigation into Benji’s mismanaged funds,” Justice Jim Sharp wrote in the July 11 opinion. “The reports did not say or imply that the entire $3 million in state funds had been misappropriated or embezzled. Rather, the statements speak to the insufficiency of financial records to account for spent state funds.”

Robinson, who founded the school for special needs children in 1980, was embroiled in a dispute with the Texas Education Association concerning the management and accounting practices of the school. KTRK’s coverage echoed claims made by the state agency that the charter school could not account for much of the $3 million in public funding it received, according to the opinion.

Robinson sued the station for defamation in December 2011. In response, the station urged the trial court to dismiss the suit under the state’s anti-SLAPP law, the Texas Citizens Participation Act. Short for “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” the law is intended to quickly dispose of frivolous cases filed to silence critics exercising their speech rights.

In reversing the trial court’s order, the Houston appeals court rejected Robinson’s claims that the Texas anti-SLAPP law did not provide an immediate appeal right from denials of dismissal motions. Justice Sharp also rejected Robinson’s claim that reader comments posted alongside stories posted on the KTRK website established that the stories harmed her reputation.

“Robinson’s reliance on third-party comments posted on KTRK’s comment board to prove defamation per se is misplaced,” according to the opinion. “To be defamatory per se, the defamatory nature of the challenged statements must be apparent on its face without reference to extrinsic facts or ‘innuendo.’”

Sharp went on to state that if a reviewing court must rely on such innuendo in deciding whether a statement has a defamatory meaning, then such statements would also require parties such as Robinson to prove the extent of their injuries, which she failed to do.