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Beaumont station wins libel suit in Texas Supreme Court

- by Paul C. Watler, Jackson Walker LLP

A libel suit against a Beaumont television station was ordered dismissed by the Texas Supreme Court Friday in a decision closely-watched by Texas broadcasters and news organizations.

The Court held that KBMT Operating Co. was entitled to an early dismissal under the Citizens Participation Act, the state’s anti-SLAPP statute. 

KBMT reported disciplinary action by the Texas Medical Board against a Port Arthur pediatrician for engaging “in sexual contact with a patient” and becoming “financially involved with a patient in an inappropriate manner.” The information in the news brief was contained in a TMB press release and a profile of the physician on the TMB website which the station reviewed in preparing the report.  The patient’s age did not appear in any of the information on the medical board’s website.

The doctor sued for libel alleging that the broadcast falsely implied the patient was a child when in fact he was an adult with whom she had a long-term relationship. 

KBMT moved for a prompt dismissal under the anti-SLAPP statute. The trial court denied the motion and an intermediate appellate court affirmed the denial, holding that the gist of the broadcast was that the doctor had had sexual contact with a child.

In an opinion by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht for a six-person majority, the Supreme Court reversed because the doctor-plaintiff failed to prove that the news report was not substantially true. The Court held that the truth of a media report of official proceedings of public concern is measured only by the proceedings themselves, not against information outside the proceedings.  In other words, the doctor could not prove the report was false with evidence that the patient was an adult because that information was outside the official proceedings relied on by the station in preparing the broadcast.

The Court went on to find that an ordinary listener would not understand the broadcast to have the defamatory meaning claimed by the doctor.  “Any ordinary listener would know that improper sexual contact with a child by an adult old enough to be a physician would be a crime prosecuted by the district attorney, not by the Texas Medical Board. No ordinary listener could reasonably have thought that such a crime would be punished with a slap on the wrist – a few hours of continuing education and a small fine.”  

Justice Jeff Boyd, joined by two other members of the Court, filed a vigorous dissent sharply critical of the majority opinion. The dissent concluded that a reasonable viewer could have understood the broadcast to assert the doctor engaged in sexual contact with a pediatric patient, which the minority argued should be sufficient to survive summary dismissal and to submit the issue for jury trial. 

The Texas Association of Broadcasters, along with a number of other state and national news organizations and associations, submitted a friend of the court brief in support of KBMT.            

Paul C. Watler is a partner in the Dallas office of Jackson Walker LLP who frequently represents Texas broadcasters, journalists and news organizations in libel and First Amendment cases.

Questions? Contact TAB or call (512) 322-9944.

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