Friday, July 24, 2009

Texas Court Rules Online Reporter Merits Journalist Safeguards

Six Flags Over TexasImage by mulf via Flickr

A Texas appellate court has reversed a trial court's denial of an online reporter's motion to dismiss a libel claim against him, and in so doing, ruled that the online writer was entitled to Texas' statutory protections accorded to journalists.

In its decision in Joe Kaufman v. Islamic Society of Arlington et al, (Case No. 2-09-023CV), the Court of Appeals for the Second District at Fort Worth rejected the defendants' argument that as a writer on the Internet, Kaufman was not a journalist who could avail himself of the Texas law that affords news media members an automatic right to pretrial appeals of First Amendment-related claims.

In determining that Kaufman was eligible for the journalist safeguards, the court noted that the statutory language of Texas' shield law against compelling the disclosure of confidential sources specifically encompasses the electronic media, and cited factors supporting its conclusion that Kaufman was a journalist, including the frequency of his writing, his journalistic background and notoriety outside the parameters of the allegedly defamatory article, and the broad readership and independence from Kaufman of Front Page Magazine, the online journal that published the article at issue.

Kaufman wrote an article for Front Page Magazine on September 28, 2007, entitled "A Fanatic Muslim Family Day,"concerning a "Muslim Family Day" promotion planned for October 14, 2007, by amusement park Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington. Kaufman alleged that Muslim organizations participating in the event had ties to terrorist organizations. A graphic accompanying the article included the Six Flags logo, an outline of the State of Texas and the word "jihad" in dripping red letters. The article stated that Six Flags "will be invaded by a radical Muslim organization that has physical ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and financial ties to Hamas." It accused groups involved in Muslim Family Day with having conceived an "original and appealing way to spread anti-Western hatred."

Front Page Magazine, with a readership of 500,000, focuses on politics and terrorism and is published by the David Horowitz Freedom Center. The court tossed the libel claim because it said the defendants failed to demonstrate that the allegedly defamatory statements were specifically about them.

A sound ruling from a media law standpoint. It depends on one's viewpoint, however, as to whether Six Flags sponsored a Muslim Family Day or that Front Page Magazine has a half-million followers is the scarier proposition.

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