Libel Case Study: Turner v. Dolcefino and Libel by Implication

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In November 1991, Houston News station KTRK Channel 13 ran a news story about state representative Sylvester Turner, who was running for mayor of the city. The story concerned an apparent insurance scam conducted by an acquaintance of Turner. Turner sued the station and the reporter, Wayne Dolcefino, claiming the package implied or insinuated he was involved in the fraud.

This following was the report introduced into evidence in the case as a matter of public record:

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Reporter Dolcefino and KTRK defended themselves by arguing two points:

  1. That every statement in the report was on its face accurate. Because of the libel requires falsity, Turner could not prevail in the suit.
  2. That Turner, as a public official and public figure, must show actual malice and would not be able to do so. Essentially, he would have to prove Dolcefino and KTRK knew the publication was false or acted with reckless disregard to the truth.

As a shock to journalists, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled against the first argument by the defense while upholding the second. The court said it was possible to recover for “libel by implication,” essentially arranging true facts in a way that the overall impression were false. To journalists, this created an entirely new problem — that of paying attention to the potential perception an audience might have to the arrangement of facts rather than just to the facts themselves.

The potential problems of “libel by implication”  have failed to materialize in the ensuing years. The court has subsequently refused to accept it in cases where it could have. So despite Turner v. Dolcefino, the question of whether “libel by implication” is actionable remains up in the air.

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