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Local publishing company prevails in defamation case

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Defamation STOCK

Brought by former assistant DA

By Emily Banks Wooten
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In what is considered a huge win for journalism, the Supreme Court of Texas on Friday reversed a lower court’s ruling, effectively dismissing a suit filed by Tommy L. Coleman against Polk County Publishing Company and Valerie Reddell, former editor of the Polk County Enterprise. The 17-page opinion was written by Justice James D. Blacklock.

Polk County Publishing Company was represented by Thomas S. Leatherbury, Director of the First Amendment Clinic at SMU Dedman School of Law, and Ryan W. Gertz, a partner in the Gertz Kelley Law Firm in Beaumont.

“We are grateful for the Court’s opinion. Mr. Coleman’s claims should have been dismissed long ago. Today’s ruling is a decisive victory for our clients and for publishers and broadcasters statewide,” Leatherbury said.

“Moreover, the Court struck a blow to the efforts of prosecutors to control or intimidate the media. The First Amendment implications of this kind of suit are substantial and the law and justice prevailed. Many thanks to world class defamation lawyer Tom Leatherbury and to Kelli Barnes for allowing us to represent Polk County Publishing Company,” Gertz said.

Leatherbury is considered an expert in First Amendment law. An appellate lawyer with 40 years of experience in state and federal appeals and trials, he has also regularly represented traditional and digital publishers and broadcasters in all aspects of media litigation throughout his career, including libel, privacy and other torts, reporter’s privilege, newsgathering and access, misappropriation, and breach of contract actions.

In June 2020, the Polk County Enterprise ran a story, written by Reddell, criticizing Coleman, who at the time was a local assistant district attorney. Most of the article criticized the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office, where Coleman previously worked, for its involvement in the infamous wrongful conviction of Michael Morton. Among the article’s claims about Coleman was the statement that he “assisted with the prosecution of Michael Morton.”

Coleman sued for defamation in August 2020, claiming that the article’s statement that he “assisted with the prosecution of Michael Morton” was false and defamatory.

The defendants moved to dismiss the suit under the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA). The motion made several arguments, including that the challenged statement was not actionably false. The trial court denied the TCPA motion.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, so the defendants petitioned for review by the Supreme Court of Texas. The petition was granted, and oral arguments were presented before the Supreme Court of Texas on Sept. 14.

“This is a victory not only for the Enterprise but for all citizens, because it strengthens the First Amendment. The court affirmed an important precedent in American jurisprudence – that the truth is the ultimate defense in a defamation lawsuit. In the final analysis, the Enterprise story was truthful, and the high court said clearly that legal quibbling over the wording of a story can’t change the truth,” Donnis Baggett, executive vice president of the Texas Press Association, said.

“When the First Amendment is strengthened, the citizen is the real winner. Citizens depend on journalists to inform them about the actions of their government officials. Without a free press there can be little accountability for those officials,” Baggett said.

Polk County Enterprise Publisher Kelli Barnes agreed.

“The Polk County Enterprise, part of the Polk County Publishing Company group of newspapers, is dedicated to covering local news, delivered by trained professionals. We are thankful this case is behind us, of course, but it is just another day in the newsroom. We will continue, as always, to bring quality community journalism to our readers,” Barnes said.

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