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A legal first - KRIS-TV prevails in federal court case recognizing Texas’ Anti-SLAPP law

 - By Catherine Robb, Counsel, Haynes and Boone LLP

In a recent case in the Southern District of Texas, Christopher Williams v. Cordillera Communications, Inc., et al, a federal court in Texas for the first time explicitly found that the Texas Anti-SLAPP statute applies in federal court.  

In that case, Corpus Christi television station KRIS ran a series of stories about a (now) former high school teacher and coach, Christopher Williams, who had been accused over the years of offenses of a “sexual nature” and of inappropriate behavior with female students.  

As the case progressed and additional information about the plaintiff teacher came to light, KRIS then broadcast a number of follow–up stories, including allegations that the plaintiff had been accused of inappropriate contact with two different female students at two different schools at which he taught.   KRIS’ 2014 broadcasts focused on this troubling matter of public concern – that, despite years of allegations (and, in some instances charges) of inappropriate conduct, and after leaving a number of teaching positions due to the allegations, the plaintiff continued to get hired at another Texas school or district. 

After KRIS ran the 2014 stories, Williams amended his complaint to include allegations of defamation based on the 2014 broadcasts.    

KRIS moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the statements were true or substantially true, were privileged pursuant to the fair report/comment privilege, and that Williams was a public figure and could not demonstrate actual malice.    

KRIS also filed an anti-SLAPP motion relating to the 2014 broadcasts, also arguing for substantial truth, privilege, and lack of actual malice, and that plaintiff could not establish a prima facie case. 

In response, Williams argued that the anti-SLAPP statute did not apply in federal court and that the court could not consider the majority of KRIS’ evidence because it was not in the form of pleadings or affidavits. 

Williams also argued that he had met his burden under the statute. 

After an oral hearing on all motions, the court granted KRIS’ motion for partial summary judgment and denied plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment. 

On that same day, the court also entered an order granting KRIS’ Anti-SLAPP motion and requesting that the parties set a hearing on the recovery of costs and fees for the Anti-SLAPP Motion. 

In granting KRIS’ partial summary judgment motion, the court found that the complained of statements – that plaintiff “pled to a lesser charge” and “had one conviction” for an incident “of a sexual nature” (telephone harassment) – were substantially true and no more harmful than the truth, despite the fact that plaintiff had technically not “pled” to the charge, but had entered a deferred prosecution agreement that included a confession of guilt.

(Williams had also orally confessed to the crime to the police on tape.) 

The court also found that the statements were privileged as a fair report/fair comment made in good faith.   In addition, the court found the fact that the plaintiff had had the official records of the indecent exposure charge expunged (assuming he had done so, as there was no evidence to support the assertion) did not render false the evidence of the underlying charges that were reported by KRIS.  

In finding that the Anti-SLAPP statute applies in federal court, the court analyzed the statute under the Erie Doctrine and found that, while there are procedural aspects to it, such as its time constraints and a stay of discovery, the statute’s procedures are “designed to prevent substantive consequences--the impairment of First Amendment rights and the time and expense of defending against litigation that has no demonstrable merit under state law regarding defamation.” 

In response to plaintiff’s argument that the court could not consider the majority of KRIS’ evidence, the court found that plaintiff’s argument “was not supported by authority and is contrary to the full import of §27.006,” which allows for targeted discovery relevant to the motion and which would produce types of discovery other than pleadings and affidavits. 

The court also found that the Anti-SLAPP statute applied to the case because KRIS’ reporting on the school districts’ continued hiring of the plaintiff amid allegations of wrongdoing was about “health and safety, community well-being, and... the government” and constituted reporting on a matter of public concern, regardless of whether the plaintiff was a public figure.

Finally, the court found that plaintiff did not meet his burden to demonstrate a prima facie case in support of his cause of action under the Texas anti-SLAPP statute and dismissed with prejudice all remaining claims. 

KRIS-TV was represented by attorneys Laura Prather, Catherine Robb and Tom Williams of Haynes and Boone LLP’s Austin and Fort Worth offices.

Questions?  Contact TAB's Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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