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Third-party allegation fix legislation headed to Gov. Abbott

TAB’s top newsroom legislative priority, a bill to address a disastrous 2013 Texas Supreme Court ruling that impedes the ability of journalists to conduct investigative reports based on third party allegations, is on Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk awaiting his signature.

SB 627 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, was approved Friday on a 139-0 vote by the Texas House of Representatives.

The bill was shepherded through the lower chamber by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, chairman of the House Calendars Committee.

The Neely v. Wilson court decision set aside nearly 25 years of Texas case law, which had recognized protection of media reports on third party allegations brought by whistleblowers, whether an investigation had begun or not.

Media defendants had to prove that the underlying claims were, in fact, made and accurately reported.

Absent this protection, media reports on matters of public concern have been threatened and there have since been adverse Texas court decisions in several media cases.

SB 627 amends the Civil Practice and Remedies Code under Section 73.005 by clarifying the existing provision on the truth as a defense.   

“In an action brought against a newspaper or other periodical or broadcaster, the defense described by Subsection (a) applies to an accurate reporting of allegations made by a third party regarding a matter of public concern.”  

The key is that it must be a matter of public concern – malicious, idle gossip is not covered.   

Matters of public concern is defined elsewhere in the Civil Practice and Remedies Code, specifically, Sec. 27.001, which reads:

“An issue related to health or safety; environmental, economic, or community well-being; the government; a public official or public figure; or a good, product, or service in the marketplace.”

TAB Newsroom Legislative Committee member Laura Prather of TAB Associate Member law firm Haynes Boone LLP, drafted the legislation and negotiated many hours with the Texas Trial Lawyers Association to come up with a workable compromise.

KRIV-TV reporter Greg Groogan testified on the bill for TAB in the Senate and House committee bill hearings.   

Groogan’s testimony detailed the good that comes from investigative reporting based on third-party allegations – in this case, the physical and mental abuse of special needs students in a Houston-area school district was brought to an end.

Those who were responsible were fired and were charged with crimes.

Legislation also was filed to allow video monitoring of such classrooms to ensure student safety.

Had KRIV-TV reported on the allegations after the 2013 Neely court decision, it would have been at risk doing so.

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

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