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KTRK-TV Houston wins appeal of Anti-SLAPP motion in school superintendent defamation suit

The First Dist. Ct. of Appeals in Houston has dismissed a defamation suit filed against a Houston TV station under the Texas anti-SLAPP statute that TAB and other groups helped pass in 2011.

The court said a former charter school superintendent's defamation claim against KTRK-TV lacked sufficient proof and did not qualify as “defamation per se” under the Texas Citizens Participation Act.

Theaola Robinson sued the station over a broadcast which she said implied she embezzled $3 million from Benji’s Special Education Academy.

“Because Robinson has not adduced clear and specific evidence that the challenged statements made by KTRK in its broadcasts and reports are defamatory per se, she has not made a prima facie case for each essential element of her defamation claim against KTRK,” the appeals court said.

Laura Lee Prather of TAB Associate Member law firm Haynes and Boone LLP, represented KTRK.

She drafted the 2011 anti-SLAPP statute and led negotiations for TAB and other groups with those opposed to passing the statute in the Texas Legislature.

“[W]e believe the court’s application of the anti-SLAPP statute to this case — one in which the plaintiff had sued the defendant three different times – was particularly appropriate and struck at the core of what the statute is intended to protect against, i.e., meritless lawsuits filed in retaliation for one exercising their free speech rights,” Prather told Law 360.
The state shut down the school for special needs children, citing mismanagement and accounting irregularities.
According to court documents, Robinson reopened it as an unaccredited private school while still using public school property and buses, prompting the Texas Education Agency to revoke the school’s charter.
KTRK coverage of the TEA controversy included broadcast news reports and website articles.

Of special note to newsrooms, Robinson filed the defamation claim because of the news reports and public comments on the station website regarding them.

The trial court did not dismiss the case under the TCPA, but the appeals court reversed that decision joining three other court rulings in saying TCPA does allow for an interlocutory appeal of a denied motion to dismiss.
The Second District Court of Appeals, in another case, has ruled otherwise.

The disparity in the appeals court decisions led TAB, the Texas Press Association and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas to press for HB 2935 in the 2013 Texas Legislature, a measure which clears up the interlocutory appeal jurisdictional issue.

Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, chairman of the powerful House Calendars committee, carried the bill which Prather drafted as a follow-up to the original anti-SLAPP legislation.

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

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