Free-speech advocates cheer dismissal of Dixie Chicks case

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A decade or so ago, the decision in Hobbs v. Pasdar would have been greeted with a business-as-usual shrug of acknowledgement. Today, it’s greeted with a sigh of relief.

In Hobbs, U.S. District Judge Brian Miller earlier this month threw out Terry Hobbs’s case against Natalie Maines and the other members of the Dixie Chicks. Hobbs sued the singers after they publicly linked him to the murders of three young boys. The suit could not proceed, Miller ruled, because Hobbs could not prove the group’s members knew their statements were false.

Miller’s analysis followed fundamental First Amendment principles. Hobbs indisputably injected himself into the debate about whether the young men convicted of murdering the boys had actually killed them and accordingly is a public figure, at least as to that issue. As a limited-purpose public figure, he could not prevail against the singers unless he could prove they made the statements with actual malice, that is, with knowledge the statements were false or with reckless disregard for the statements’ truth. A mere failure to investigate the truth of a statement is not reckless unless the speaker knows the statement is probably false.

Recently, however, the actual-malice standard has been under attack, especially in cases in which a publisher simply reports allegations made in public records or by public officials. A strong affirmation of that standard in a high-profile case therefore was welcomed by nervous First Amendment advocates.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the decision in Hobbs is that Miller did not fault the Dixie Chicks for relying on only one side in the debate about the innocence or guilt of the three young men, who have come to be known as the West Memphis Three. He therefore implicitly rejected those who claim that the actual-malice standard does not protect those who report one-sided public allegations.

Maines (whose married name is Natalie Pasdar) became interested in the West Memphis Three after watching two HBO documentaries about their case in 2007. The documentaries reported a number of questions about the guilt of the three men convicted of killing the boys in 1993 and noted that evidence existed that Hobbs — who was the stepfather of one of the victims — was involved in the crimes.

After determining that the West Memphis Three were continuing to challenge their convictions, Maines contributed to their defense fund and began communicating with people close to them. In late November 2007, Maines posted a letter about the case on the Dixie Chicks’ Web site, in which she — relying heavily on a press release distributed by the defense team — implicated Hobbs in the murders.

Hobbs sued in Arkansas, claiming the letter and other public comments made by Maines defamed him, cast him in a false light and caused him emotional distress. During the litigation, which the Dixie Chicks removed to federal court in Arkansas, Hobbs cited court records and other evidence — all of which existed prior to the time Maines wrote her letter — casting doubt on the defense team’s allegations.

Nevertheless, Miller held that no reasonable jury could find that the Dixie Chicks published the letter with actual malice. The mere fact that Maines did not verify the truth of the allegations, Miller said, did not establish that she knew they were false or that she was reckless concerning their truth. Because Hobbs could not recover under any of his claims without evidence of actual malice, Miller granted the Dixie Chicks’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed the entire case.

Those concerned about the news media’s ability to report allegations made in public records or by public officials next will turn their attention to Salzano v. North Jersey Media Group Inc., a case pending before the New Jersey Supreme Court. In Salzano, two newspapers accurately reported details from a bankruptcy lawsuit against Thomas John Salzano. Salzano sued, claiming the allegations were false.

The trial court judge dismissed the case, holding the newspapers’ publications were protected by the fair-report privilege, which permits fair and accurate reporting of public documents and statements by public officials. On appeal, however, the Superior Court of New Jersey reversed, holding the fair-report privilege only protects reports of final court judgments, not summaries of pre-trial filings. The New Jersey Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case on Oct. 14, stayed enforcement of the appellate court ruling pending its decision.

Also of concern is the 2008 jury verdict against the Tribune-Star of Terre Haute, Ind. In 2004, the newspaper published details concerning a citizen’s sworn complaint against a deputy sheriff. In its articles, the newspaper reported the deputy’s denial that he had been involved in the traffic stop at issue. When the department’s internal investigation ultimately concluded the deputy indeed had not been present during the incident, the newspaper printed that fact as well.

Despite the accuracy of the articles, the deputy sued. A Sullivan County jury awarded the deputy $500,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages. The Tribune-Star appealed, but the parties later agreed to dismiss the appeal, presumably after reaching a settlement.

While the Tribune-Star case establishes no legal precedent and the New Jersey Supreme Court appears likely to reverse the ruling in Salzano, the willingness of some judges and juries to punish fair and accurate reporting of public records is more than a little troubling, if only because it encourages people like Terry Hobbs to attempt to stifle public debate.

Fortunately, after the decision in Hobbs, that debate is a little safer.