— By CHRISTIN COYNE
Nearly two dozen news media and public advocacy organizations weighed in last week on a matter before the Texas Supreme Court involving a lawsuit filed by David Barton and Parker County-based Wallbuilders against two former Texas State Board of Education candidates.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit that offers free legal support to journalists, along with 19 news organizations and other groups, filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court last week supporting a request by Judy A. Jennings and Rebecca Bell-Metereau to overturn an appeals court decision.
In early 2012, 415th District Judge Graham Quisenberry denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case under a new state anti-SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) law that seeks to protect First Amendment rights for speakers who may be frivously sued to inhibit their speech.
They hoped to require Barton to provide evidence of the claims to avoid having his case dismissed.
Jennings and Bell-Metereau appealed Quisenberry’s decision to the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth but the Fort Worth court denied the appeal on Aug. 16, finding that, because of the wording of the law, they could not hear an appeal.
Barton sued the women, who ran unsuccessfully for seats on the Texas Board of Education, for videos they aired that Barton, a political advisor, said cast him as a white supremacist and liar.
Attorneys for Jennings and Bell-Metereau have asked the state’s highest court to hear the issue, arguing that the legislature never intended to deny the opportunity of appeal.
It’s the first time an appeals court has interpreted how the new state law works, Julie Ford, an attorney for Jennings and Bell-Metereau, told the Democrat in October.
“We’re hoping that the Supreme Court can give us some guidance on how this new statute works,” Ford said.
“Defendants across the state are relying on this new statute,” attorneys for Jennings and Bell-Metereau stated in the petition filed in October requesting the state’s highest court look at the issue. “The question of whether appellate protections are available when a person is sued for exercising their constitutional rights ‘to petition, speak freely, associate freely and otherwise participate in government’ is one of such importance that it should be decided by this court.”
“The appeals court ruling is completely out of synch with the Texas Legislature’s intent and with the interpretations of anti-SLAPP statutes around the country,” Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce D. Brown said in a statement.
“Because its decision effectively kills a defendant’s right to appeal a special motion to dismiss that was denied by the trial court, we hope the state Supreme Court will review and reverse the appellate decision.”
“The interpretation by the court of appeals effectively transforms the appeals provision from a right of appeal to a right of one-time judicial review — a motion under the TCPA [Texas Citizen Participation Act] is either reviewed by the trial court or by the appellate court, but never by both,” the brief states.
Other organizations who joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in filing the brief include: ABC Inc.; A&E Television Networks LLC; A.H. Belo Corp.; Advance Publications Inc.; Belo Corp.; The Associated Press; CBS Broadcasting Inc.; Dow Jones & Co. Inc.; E.W. Scripps Co.; Fox Television Stations Inc.; Gannett Co. Inc.; Hearst Corp.; KVIA-TV, Austin; The McClatchy Co.; Media Law Resource Center; NBCUniversal Media LLC; The New York Times Co.; Public Citizen Inc.; Public Participation Project; The Texas Association of Broadcasters; and The Texas Press Association.
It’s an issue that’s also of interest in another high profile Parker County case.
A week after the Jennings and Bell-Metereau denial, the Second Court of Appeals made a similar decision in an appeal regarding the anti-SLAPP law by Steven and Shyla Lipsky, who are being sued for defamation by Range Resources.
They’ve also requested the state’s top court weigh in on the same issue in their case.