McElligott on Former Houstonians
What, free speech wins again?
The freedom of the press was once again upheld in a state appellate court decision Wednesday as a $3.5 million libel award to state representative and UH alumnus Sylvester Turner was overturned.
The decision was a major victory for investigative journalists everywhere. It upholds the belief that the public has the right to know what their city officials are doing with their money and their time.
The case began in 1991, when Turner sued KTRK-13 and investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino following a newscast Turner claimed "falsely linked him to a phony death and ruined his bid to become mayor."
Turner won $5.5 million in damages in a 10-2 decision in October 1996, later reduced to $3.5 million.
The star witness in the case, former Channel 13 reporter Mary Ellen Conway, testified that Dolcefino ignored her briefing from the news conference room conducted by Turner after the first broadcast that evening.
What eventually hurt Dolcefino was Conway’s assertion that she told him about an insurance attorney and probate judge who had defended Turner’s role in the probate case. She overheard him say he did not use it because the two Turner supporters had not returned his earlier calls. Dolcefino denied such allegations.
The initial decision found by the state district court jury was wrong for several reasons. First, the so-called testimony, which many believed made the case against Dolcefino, ignored the fact the Dolcefino did make several attempts to contact Turner’s supporters.
Deadlines are crucial in the news business. If a source does not return calls in time, then the reporter must decide whether or not to air the story based on whether the story is important to the public. In this case it was.
The election was six days away for the mayor’s seat and the story asked an important question: Does the public want to elect a man who has allegedly committed insurance fraud?
In order to make an informed decision about the mayoral candidates, the voters had the right to know about the controversy surrounding Turner.
Dolcefino did not accuse Turner of these crimes outright, but rather based his information on a court investigator’s findings that showed Turner’s connections to other people. All the facts were there, and the story was credible.
The decision to take the case to appeals court by KTRK and Dolcefino was the right one. It upheld the journalistic principle of reporters as the defenders of the public’s right to know.
The appellate judges were right in finding that there was no actual malice in Dolcefino’s report. As long as he presented the facts, audience interpretation of them was a nominal issue.
Upon hearing the decision, Turner said that he would appeal. If for some reason he wins again, the rights of both journalists and the public will be stifled. For now, the constitutional rights of the public have once again been protected.