A columnist for The Dallas Morning News waded into litigious territory when he wrote a column about suicide that so upset a set of parents who were already grieving over the loss of their son that they filed a libel suit.
And after a court of appeals sustained the parents’ defamation claims, Austin attorney and former chief justice Wallace Jefferson recently convinced the Texas Supreme Court that the newspaper and its columnist’s opinions were protected by the First Amendment, reinstating a trial court ruling dismissing the libel case.
John and Mary Ann Tatum sued columnist Steve Blow over his 2010 column, “Shrouding suicide in secrecy leaves its danger unaddressed.”
According to the court, the Tatums’ son, Paul Tatum, was a popular high school student who crashed his parents’ car on the way home from a fast-food run in a wreck that was serious enough to cause the air bags to deploy. He came home, began drinking and called a friend. The friend found Paul in the home in a confused state holding a firearm. When the friend left to call for help, Paul fired the gun and killed himself.
The Tatums concluded that the car accident caused irrational and suicidal ideations, which led to Paul’s death. For the parents, these observations underscored their theory that Paul’s car crash generated a brain injury that led to his suicide, the opinion noted.
While Blow’s column did not mention the Tatums by name, it quoted from Paul’s paid obituary, which “reported he died as a result of injuries in a car accident” but left out that his death “turned out to have been a suicide”.
Blow noted that “the secrecy surrounding suicide leaves us greatly underestimating the danger there” and that “averting our eyes from the reality only puts more lives at risk.” Blow concluded his column, according to the court, by writing “the last thing I want to do is put guilt on the family of suicide victims. They already face a grief more intense than most of us will ever know.”
Blow also wrote the column without attempting to contact the Tatums, and those who knew the family immediately recognized the obituary referenced was Paul’s, the court said.
The Tatums sued both Blow and the Morning News for libel, and the newspaper for Deceptive Trade Practices Act claims. A trial court dismissed all of the Tatums’ claims on appeal. But Dallas’ Fifth Court of Appeals revived the libel claims after concluding the column could be construed to mean that Paul suffered from a mental illness that his parents failed to confront—which was defamatory to the Tatum’s reputation.
Blow and the newspaper appealed the decision to the Texas Supreme Court, arguing that the First Amendment protected the opinion piece, and that it was nonactionable because the article was substantially true.
And in its May 11 decision in The Dallas Morning News v. Tatum, the high court agreed with Blow and the newspaper’s arguments.
“Blow’s column is an opinion because it does not, in context, defame the Tatums by accusing them of perpetrating a morally blameworthy deception,” wrote Justice Jeff Brown. “But to the extent that the column states that the Tatums acted deceptively, it is true.”
“The publication of Blow’s column may have run afoul of certain journalistic, ethical, and other standards. But the standards governing the law of defamation are not among them,” Brown wrote.
Considering the emotional facts of the case, the win was a tough one even for Jefferson, a former Texas Supreme Court chief justice who authored one of the high court’s most significant First Amendment cases in recent years: 2004’s New Times v. Isaacks, which found that satire is a protected form of free speech.
“The circumstances surrounding the case are tragic,” said Jefferson, a partner in Austin’s Alexander DuBose Jefferson & Townsend, who handled the case in the Supreme Court after it was briefed in the lower courts by Dallas attorney Paul Watler. “But the court focused on core principals of free speech in the context of defamation law. And I think the court properly followed a long line of precedent in finding the column is protected by the First Amendment.’’
“The court concluded that the column’s context disclosed that any implied accusation of deception against the Tatum’s is opinion,” Jefferson added. “And opinion is protected under the First Amendment and under the court’s jurisprudence going back decades.’’