Reporters Committee urges Texas court to uphold protection for reporting third-party allegations

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend of the court brief urging the Texas Supreme Court to uphold a state law that protects journalists who accurately report on allegations made by third parties, even if those accusations ultimately are found to be false. The Texas Association of Broadcasters joined the brief.

In Neely v. Wilson, the court is considering a defamation suit filed by a Texas neurosurgeon against a television station which reported on negative comments about the doctor made by former patients and the Texas Board of Medical Examiners. The doctor claims that laws protecting such reporting run counter to established legal doctrine in every other U.S. jurisdiction. The Reporters Committee, however, disagree with that position.

"The essence of journalism is the pursuit of truth through the competition of ideas," the Reporters Committee brief argued. "More than 20 years ago, in McIlvain v. Jacobs . . . this court recognized that when a journalist reports on accusations made by a third party, the relevant statement that must be evaluated to establish the truth of the report is not the underlying allegation, but the journalist's accurate report of the allegations themselves.

"This rule recognizes the role that journalists play in airing all sides of a public controversy, and appropriately protects their ability to do so," the brief continued. Although the doctor is claiming that the McIlvain case is an anomaly, the Reporters Committee argues that it "is simply an application of the common maxim that substantial truth is a defense against a claim of libel" and notes that standard is applied in both state and federal jurisdictions throughout the U.S.

The Reporters Committee brief further argues that the broadcast report is protected by the "neutral reportage principle" that allows for accurate reporting on "serious accusations by credible sources levied against public figures" that are newsworthy simply because they were made.

"The public interest in being fully informed about controversies that often rage around sensitive issues demands that the press be afforded the freedom to report such charges without assuming responsibility for them," the amicus brief argued.

The full brief is available on the Reporters Committee website.

About the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.

By Avi S. Adelman under Public safety , Dallas City Hall