Rational Interpretation Negates Malice in TCPA Appeal

Former GOP Senate candidate Chris Mapp sued the Dallas Morning News for defamation after it published an editorial stating Mapp had told the editorial board “that ranchers should be allowed to shoot on sight anyone illegally crossing the border on their land, referring to such people as ‘wetbacks,’ and called the president a ‘socialist son of a bitch.'” Mapp claimed that the “shoot on sight” comment had been taken out of context because he had actually said ranchers should be permitted to shoot when they were in “fear for their life” or in defense of property, the same as anybody else. The News filed a motion to dismiss under the TCPA, but the 30-day statutory period after the hearing passed without a ruling by the trial court. That caused the motion to be overruled by operation of law, and the newspaper perfected an interlocutory appeal. The trial court then issued an order granting the motion to dismiss, albeit outside the prescribed time period.

This raised two questions for the Dallas Court of Appeals: What was the effect of the late-issued dismissal order, and should the case have been dismissed on the merits in any event? As to the first question, the Court held that the untimely dismissal order was a nullity. On the merits, the Court held that Mapp (who was a public figure) had not met his prima facie burden of showing that the newspaper had published the allegedly defamatory statements with constitutional malice. Paraphrasing or deliberately altering another person’s words does not establish actual malice unless there is evidence the defendant misinterpreted the remarks on purpose or in circumstances so improbable that the mistake could only have been recklessly. The Court concluded that the newspaper’s paraphrase of the statements Mapp had made in his tape-recorded interview was a rational interpretation of what he had said, and Mapp had not submitted any evidence to contradict the reporter’s affidavit explaining his subjective intent. The Court of Appeals therefore concluded that the trial court had erred by allowing the motion to dismiss to be overruled by operation of law, rendered judgment that Mapp’s case be dismised, and remanded to the trial court for a determination of the DMN’s costs, fees, and other recoverable expenses.

The Dallas Morning News, Inc. v. Mapp, No. 05-14-00848-CV

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