Truth or Consequences: Should Lying to the Media be Illegal?

Barbara A. Schwartz

Shortly after midnight on November 4th, two of Houston’s finest and bravest stopped a pickup truck in Third Ward. The officers had probable cause to affect the traffic stop.

The driver pulled a gun and an officer stopped the threat.

The female passenger later told the news media that the downed suspect did not have a gun.

The suspect and passenger were African-Americans and the officer was not. Quanell X called a press conference where he heralded the female passenger’s statement that the suspect did not have a weapon.

Evidence proved the female passenger wrong. The gun was found in the truck.

The female passenger did not withdraw her statement. Quanell X did not appear on television to inform the public that the previous statement had been false.

The statements made to the press following this officer involved shooting brings up the question: should there be consequences for giving untruthful statements to the press? Should Texas enact legislation to make this a chargeable offense?

Would such a law deter people from making untruthful statements to the news media?

In Ferguson, Missouri, people told the press that the suspect had his hands up when he was shot by a police officer. Some of those people hadn’t even witnessed the shooting. The false statements instigated riots. As a result, innocent people sustained thousands of dollars in property damage.

The City of Ferguson and the State of Missouri spent thousands of dollars protecting the city and its citizens during those riots and in the days and weeks that followed.

Insurance claims were filed and paid. Premiums may have gone up because of the unrest and resulting property damage.

Those responsible for the untruthful utterances didn’t go to jail nor did they pay restitution to the property owners or the government coffers or the insurance companies.

Should they have been held responsible both legally and financially?

Should the news media be held equally accountable to report that the statements were false?

Currently, the only legal recourse in Texas for the aggrieved parties is to seek civil litigation.

Summary of Existing Laws

 

Texas law defines the elements of libel as the form of defamation expressed in written or other graphic form that tends to blacken the memory of the dead or that tends to injure a living person’s reputation and thereby expose the person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, or financial injury or to impeach any person’s honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation or to publish the natural defects of anyone and thereby expose the person to public hatred, ridicule, or financial injury. (Civil Practice and Remedies Code, Title 4, Chapter 73, Subchapter A, Section 73.001)

Section 73.004(a) of the code states: A broadcaster is not liable in damages for a defamatory statement published or uttered in or as part of a radio or television broadcast by one other than the broadcaster unless the complaining party proves that the broadcaster failed to exercise due care to prevent the publication or utterance of the statement in the broadcast.

Section 73.055(a)(1) states that a person may maintain an action for defamation only if the person has made a timely and sufficient request for correction, clarification, or retraction from the defendant.

Which means before a person can sue for libel that person must demand, in writing, a retraction. If the retraction is made within thirty days, the person is no longer libel.

Slander is defined as the form of defamation in which the defamatory statement is communicated orally.

First Amendment rights would also weigh in. The Supreme Court ruled in 1964 in New York Times v. Sullivan that public figures must prove actual malice and that the person knew the statement was false and was issued with reckless disregard to the truth. (A police officer would be considered an involuntary public figure in the performance of said duties.)

 

A Truth or Consequences Law

A Truth or Consequences law in Texas might read like this:

(a) A person commits an offense if the person intentionally and knowingly with reckless disregard to the truth makes false statements and utterances to the public or through the news media. And those statements or utterances lead to:

(1) Incitement of civil unrest or disorderly conduct,

(2) Misrepresentation of the evidence or facts in a criminal case, or

(3) Defamation of a public servant.

(b) An offense under this section is a Class A Misdemeanor

Be nice if the law included lying to the police.

 

Proving the Lie is a Lie.

Proving that a person intentionally and knowingly lied is the challenge.

Defense to prosecution would come in excuses like “it’s what I perceived to have happened” or “that’s how I remember it.”

Psychologists would go wild on cable television commenting on how false memories are formed and recalled.

Opinion is a defense to defamation in civil litigation and would probably be a defense to prosecution in a Truth or Consequences Law case. Making statements of opinion as opposed to fact is covered in civil law and may be interpreted as free speech.

The real defense to prosecution would be to retract the false statements and utterances and compel the news media to broadcast and print the recanted statement.

 

Using the Grand Jury Process

The district attorney may subpoena the person who made the false allegations and utterances in a criminal case to testify before the grand jury. A possible recourse to make the person go on record.

Lying to the grand jury comes with its own legal remedies.

 

Lying as a National Pastime

Has lying become a national pastime? Is lying tolerated and expected in our society and culture? Politicians lie about facts to support their positions. Gossip magazines lie and make up stories about celebrities to boost sales. People have lied to get attention or their fifteen minutes of fame. Crooks readily lie to the police.

Is a person lying about the existence of a gun in the same category?

A cultural, moral, and sociological issue exists in this country that allows lying to be tolerated. The Internet and millions of blogs give people a ready platform to lie.

That may be the moral issue that needs to be addressed.

The news media should have a moral and ethical responsibility to broadcast and print retractions to untruthful utterances. The news media should have a responsibility to give the truth the same air and print time that they gave to the untruthful headlines and stories.

If you believe a Truth or Consequences Law needs to be enacted, please contact your state representative or the governor.

A special thanks to the HPD officer who inspired this article.

Contact the author at: bschwartz(insert at sign)hpou.org.

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Copyright©2015 Barbara A. Schwartz All Rights Reserved.