Democrats pulling for Wendy Davis to turn Texas blue in 2014 should hope she has developed a thicker skin since her first run for public office nearly two decades ago, which ended in a bizarre lawsuit against a local newspaper.
Following an unsuccessful bid for a seat on the Fort Worth city council in 1996, Davis sued the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, along with parent companies ABC and Disney, for libel, alleging that the paper’s coverage of her campaign had been biased and “demonizing,” caused harm to her physical and mental health, and infringed on her “right to pursue public offices in the past and in the future.” Davis demanded “significant exemplary damages” in return.
The suit, which was roundly dismissed on three separate occasions after Davis appealed all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, centered on a series of “libelous and defamatory” articles about her candidacy, which, she alleged, were authored “with an intent to inflict emotional distress” and to deny her rights under the First Amendment.
Specifically cited is a Star-Telegram editorial published the day of the runoff election between Davis and opponent Cathy Hirt, whom the paper had endorsed. The editorial expressed “disappointment” at an opposition-research flier that Davis’s campaign had circulated in the days leading up to the election and that, among other things, attacked Hirt for failing multiple times to pass the Tennessee bar exam and raised questions about whether Hirt had practiced law in Texas illegally.
“Perhaps the intensity of the fight has caused good people to act callously and recklessly and to abandon good manners,” the editors wrote. “Whatever, it seems tasteless for the Davis campaign to imply that Hirt — who has a doctorate and speaks three languages — is inferior because she, according to the flier, failed the Tennessee bar exam three times before passing it.”
The editorial went on to criticize the Davis campaign flier for attempting to “impugn the integrity” of her opponent by painting her as beholden to the “power and money” crowd — even though Davis raised nearly twice as much money ($40,000) — and for including a series of laudatory quotes from Jerry Russell, founder of the Stage West Theatre in Fort Worth without disclosing that Russell is Davis’s father.
The editors concluded on a mordant note:
What we are saying today is nothing more than this: It is sad that victory means so much to some people that they will follow the time-honored rule of politics: To win, you must fight dirty and with innuendo.
That’s what happens all the time nationally. It is not the rule here, but the exception. You would think someone who grew up here would know that.
Davis’s lawsuit argued that the editorial, and others like it, “was meant to injure [her] reputation . . . and thereby expose her to public hatred, contempt and ridicule.” It also criticized the Star-Telegram for failing to report on the allegations against Hirt detailed in the flier; Davis’s campaign had provided information on the allegations to the paper.
The complaint itself was light on subtlety and nuance, arguing that the paper’s conduct “was extreme and outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” As a result of the paper’s actions, Davis alleged, she had “suffered and is continuing to suffer damages to her mental health, her physical health, her right to pursue public offices in the past and in the future, and to her legal career” and deserved financial compensation.
The suit was essentially laughed out of court. It was quickly dismissed by a district-court judge, who sustained all of the defendants’ objections, largely on the grounds that Davis had failed to present legitimate evidence to support her libel claim. It was unanimously rejected by an appellate court three years later and ultimately by the Texas Supreme Court. The defense appears to have had a relatively easy job arguing that Davis was challenging a newspaper’s right to express an opinion she disagreed with, a challenge that obviously ran afoul of the First Amendment.
If Davis hopes to pull off what would certainly be a stunning upset in the Texas governor’s race, she may want to focus less on trying to police her critics and more on emphasizing her “pro-life” views.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.