Texas Supreme Court to review libel in the media

By Marilyn Tennissen | Jun 18, 2012

The Texas Supreme Court has agreed to review a case that could change the protections from defamation suits provided to reporters.

At issue is the "third-party allegation rule," which shields reporters and media outlets from lawsuits if an allegation is accurately reported even if the allegation is untrue.

Reporter Nanci Wilson with KEYE-TV in Austin aired a story in 2004 about Dr. Byron Neely. She reported that Neely, a neurosurgeon, had been disciplined by the Texas Medical Board for self prescribing pain medications. She also interviewed several former patients who had sued Neely.

The doctor sued Wilson and the station for defamation, claiming that the report led to the collapse of the his medical practice.

Neely's lawsuit was dismissed by a Travis County district judge, and in 2011 the Texas Third District Court of Appeals agreed that the suit lacked merit. The appeals court found that the news report was protected from a libel claim because it was "substantially true," but raised questions about the state's libel laws.

The news station and a reporters' organization urged the court to reject Neely's appeal.

"(Neely) presumes that a journalist reporting on a controversy can always know whether the accusations made by sources are valid," said a brief by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "But the very purpose of journalism is to seek the positions of all sides to a controversy and accurately and fairly report the positions of those parties."

The appeals court noted that its finding was based on a two-page 1990 Supreme Court decision, McIlvain v. Jacobs, that did not specifically reference the third-party rule.

But Neely argued that the third-party standard would give reporters and media outlets "blanket immunity" from lawsuits.

"Because nearly any story can be reported in a 'he-said-she-said' format, such a rule would in essence make it impossible to sue a media defendant for libel in this state. That is far too much power to give the media or any other group," Neely argued in a brief.

The high court made the announcement on June 15 and stated the case will be heard in the fall.

The case is Neely v. Wilson, 11-0228

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