Blogger Uses Texas Free Speech Law To Nix Defamation Row

Law360 (June 21, 2018, 8:03 PM EDT) -- A Texas appellate court on Thursday sided with a blog and its author, holding a trial court had wrongly declined to dismiss a defamation claim brought by a school principal and ruling a state free speech law protects the blog posts at issue on the ground they concern matters of public concern involving public officials.

Texas' First Court of Appeals held that the posts on the Iola Barker blog by James Trice fall under protected activity covered by the Texas Citizens Participation Act, a law intended to curb strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP suits. Trice was sued by two Iola Independent School District officials — school principal Scott Martindale and Monica Hurst, the district's director of technology — over blog posts he had made anonymously in April 2017 about school district activities.

Hurst sued after Trice allegedly re-published to his blog a meme from her personal Facebook page that included her Facebook profile picture of her, her husband and her two minor children. She argued that use of the image without consent was done with “malice” and to “embarrass, provoke, intimidate, or harm” her. Hurst asked the court for an injunction to prevent the blog and Trice from using the photograph without permission.

Martindale joined that suit, alleging that his name had been used without his permission, with intent to “hurt or harm him,” and that Trice had defamed him by alleging that he had “engaged in improper terminating and hiring practices.” Trice moved to have both complaints dismissed under the TCPA, and Hurst soon thereafter dropped her case, but the trial court declined to toss Martindale's claims under the TCPA.

The appellate court found that the decision not to dismiss was incorrect, explaining that Trice's move to dismiss under the TCPA was not resolved merely because Hurst decided to drop the lawsuit. The court also held that the blog posts at issue contain protected speech, and that therefore Martindale's claims must therefore be dismissed.

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