In Wendy Davis vs Star-Telegram Operating, Inc. et al Wendy Davis alleged — as the basis of her case — that a negative newspaper editorial not only infringed on her “right to pursue public office.” Davis alleged — in court as the basis of her case — that the editorial damaged her physical and mental health.
That’s quite a claim.
Wendy Davis alleged in court that a newspaper editorial made her a little bonkers, entitling her to some of its money. The paper’s deep Disney pockets had nothing to do with it.
So what happened? According to the May 25, 1996 editorial, which is also available in full at the site linked above, Davis’ campaign had sent out an election-eve mailer that smeared her opponent and disparaged the Bass family, which the newspaper notes is known for its philanthropic generosity. In her mailer Davis claimed a prominent endorsement but declined to disclose that the endorser was her own father. The Star-Telegram lamented Davis’ dirty win-at-all-costs tactics and therefore endorsed her opponent in the Fort Worth City Council race.
Newspapers make such editorial decisions during every election cycle, always have and always will — unless a case like Davis’ somehow succeeds. Davis was not just attacking the Star-Telegram — her suit threatened the freedom of the press enshrined in the First Amendment.
Davis lost her frivolous lawsuit by unanimous decision and the court wrote that they “cannot conclude a person of ordinary intelligence would perceive the (newspaper’s) statements as inflammatory.” The district court dismissed Davis’ case “with prejudice,” a court’s way of heaping scorn on the Harvard-educated Davis for filing a pointless lawsuit. Davis lost on every single count.
Wendy Davis wasn’t done. Having been tossed out of court, she decided to appeal and her case went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. Four years after she first filed the suit, the Texas Supreme Court also tossed her case out. The Star-Telegram’s attorney at the time, Charles Babcock, said, “It was a remarkable theory that Ms. Davis was advancing – that this newspaper could not comment on the various issues of her campaign, and that it could not express its opinion as to which candidate it preferred. If Ms. Davis’s theories had been correct, there would have been a serious chill on the media to report on campaigns.”
Now, some might argue that Davis filed her suit in the heat of the moment a long time ago, and may not be disposed to such win-at-all-costs tactics now. The facts then and now suggest otherwise. She pursued the case for four long years, though appeals, all the way up to the Texas Supreme Court. That’s not a heat-of-the-moment act, that’s stalking via the courts. Davis pursued ruthless, win-at-all-costs tactics during that 1996 race and again during the 2013 filibuster that made her famous. It was her supporters who clogged up the Texas capitol, chanted obscene chants and engaged in tactics that brought disgrace to the state — and Wendy Davis never said or did a single thing to stop any of it. She could have. But she chose not to. It’s a safe bet that her gubernatorial campaign is already lining up smears against her Democratic primary and general election opponents now.
Far from being an old case buried in the distant past, Wendy Davis’ lawsuit against a newspaper for doing what newspapers do is a telling moment in her life, and reveals the kind of governor she would be.
Wendy Davis’ four-year courtroom war against the Fort Worth Star-Telegram still stands as a legitimate reason to believe that she would be a reckless, thin-skinned and divisive governor who would be very bad for the state of Texas.
*The story actually came out on September 1, 2013, so I was incorrect on its publication date. My apologies for the error.