Bill would dilute protection of a strong, free press


The Texas Capitol and grounds in Austin.
The Texas Capitol and grounds in Austin. NYT

A bill set for public hearing before the House State Affairs Committee on Wednesday in Austin seeks to exempt Texas from a fundamental legal principle that has backed powerful journalism about public figures in the U.S. for more than 50 years.

State Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, filed House Bill 3387, which would make it easier for elected officials and people who often engage in public affairs to file lawsuits to prevent or punish news coverage they don’t like.

The bill would make it easier to collect damages for libel or slander. If the bill becomes law, the threat of such lawsuits is likely to put a chill on some news reporting, a result no legislator or other Texan should want.

It would threaten the ability of a free press to hold public officials accountable.

The landmark 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan grew out of the civil rights movement. L.B. Sullivan, an elected official in Montgomery, Ala., alleged that he was defamed by false statements in an advertisement published in The New York Times.

The Supreme Court ruled that public officials and “public figures” could not collect defamation damages unless they could show “actual malice” — that false statements were published with knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard for the truth.

King’s bill would carve out needless exceptions to that standard. Lawmakers shouldn’t let that happen.