A divided Supreme Court of Texas has held that, in a defamation case covered by the “official-proceedings” privilege, “the truth of a media report of official proceedings of public concern must be measured against the proceedings themselves, not against information outside the proceedings” —i.e., not against the “actual facts,” whatever they may be. The media must be free to accurately report the results and developments in an official proceeding, the Court said, without having to first independently confirm that the underlying evidence or findings are themselves correct.

KBMT Operating Co., LLC v. Toledo

Supreme Court of Texas (June 17, 2016)

Chief Justice Hecht (Opinion); Justice Boyd (Dissent)

KBMT, a Beaumont TV station, reported that Toledo, whom it identified as a pediatrician from nearby Port Arthur, had been disciplined by the Texas Medical Board for unprofessional conduct—specifically, that she “engaged in sexual contact with a patient,” among other things. Toledo sued, claiming the report had defamed her. By describing her as a pediatrician and omitting that the patient in question was her 60-year-old boyfriend, KBMT had portrayed her as having engaged in sex with a child, she alleged. The majority disagreed, observing that “any ordinary listener” would not interpret the report as a whole as Toledo suggested. More importantly, the station had accurately reported what was in the public record: The Medical Board’s order identified Toledo as a pediatrician (she was), but nothing posted by the Board reported the patient’s age. Because the station had accurately reported the proceeding, if not all the underlying facts, the “gist” of its report was substantially true and Toledo’s claim should be dismissed. “Requiring the media to independently investigate the facts before reporting on official proceedings,” the Court reasoned, “would ill serve the public’s interest in government activities.”

The dissent disagreed with the majority’s characterization of the “gist” of the report as being substantially true, believing the issue should have been left to a jury. It also criticized the majority’s application of the official-proceedings privilege as an oversimplification of a “complex issue” that the Court need not, and should not, have decided.