The Texas Tribune recently noted that Wendy Davis sued the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997 for publishing an editorial critical of Davis’ negative campaign tactics.
Wendy Davis’ libel lawsuit in the 116th District Court in Dallas (Case #DC-97-03532, Wendy Davis vs. Star-Telegram Operating, Inc., et al) could literally be used as a case study in over-litigation – the case was filed by a failed political candidate seeking damages for psychological pain caused by negative news coverage of her own campaign tactics and was thrown out in a summary judgment.
Thin skin much?
During her failed 1996 City Council campaign bid, Davis was the subject of negative news coverage in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, including an editorial which criticized her negative campaign tactics. Subsequent to her electoral loss, Davis filed a libel lawsuit against the paper, and parent companies The Walt Disney Co. and ABC Inc., to attempt to obtain an award for damages.
In her suit, Davis claimed that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s editorial had damaged her mental health and infringed upon her “right to pursue public office.”
So what exactly was so bad about the editorial? Read it for yourself:
On the eve of a City Council runoff election, a campaign has turned dirty. That’s not something we see much of in these parts. It’s also not something we respect or cotton to.
Fort Worth is a city that works. Its government, its businesses and even the people who agree to disagree have a unique ability to pull together for the common good. And all who live here and use the city for its culture and entertainment benefit from this attitude. It is a frame of mind that places the welfare of the many above pettiness and above those things that benefit only the few.
That’s why we view with disappointment the last-minute mailing to residents of District 9 sent by the Wendy Davis campaign, apparently to impugn the integrity of Davis’s opponent, Cathy Hirt.
Hirt finished slightly ahead of Davis in the regular campaign to fill the seat vacated by newly elected Mayor Kenneth Barr. The runoff election is scheduled today.
It is a heated battle. Many feel that it is too close to call.
Perhaps the intensity of the fight has caused good people to act callously and recklessly and to abandon good manners.
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. Davis, it is pointed out, attended Harvard University. Both women are attorneys.
The brochure points out that Davis has lived here all her life and that Hirt has been here less than five years. Last time we checked, length of residency in Fort Worth is not a prerequisite for service. In fact, Hirt has been an active neighborhood and civic leader and volunteer almost from the day she arrived.
Davis’s campaign uses a quotation to imply that the “power and money” crowd does not want her elected because she is too independent. We are not certain who the “power and money” crowd is, but we can guess.
There are many wealthy families in Fort Worth, but the family with the highest profile is the Basses. If this invective is directed at them, it seems unfair and uncalled for. All the Basses have done for this city is to simply make it the envy of every city in the country.
Sunday’s New York Times ran an extensive story extolling the virtues of our city, and the story line was based around the careful and successful development of our downtown Sundance Square. The story reported that this has been accomplished because of the huge financial investment of the Bass family.
Quite simply, they give generously and ask for nothing. Gratitude or at least the absence of being smeared, though, might be something they could expect. Should they be her target, then the misguided mailing is a black mark indeed on the face of her campaign.
Besides, Davis has raised probably more than $40,000 for this $75-a-meeting council seat, and some of her money has come from the rich and powerful people she now is trying, apparently, to paint as her enemies. What’s her beef? Her opponent has raised only about half as much. If she has the “money and power” crowd behind her, they certainly are a stingy bunch.
Then there is the question of openness raised by her flier. One quote about Davis says she’s “a fighter and a winner,” and another says she is “extraordinarily level-headed and fair-minded.” These and several other quotes are attributed to “Jerry Russell, Founder, Stage West.”
A small thing, perhaps, but telling: It would seem that Davis should have pointed out that Russell is her father, and obviously a proud one at that.
Finally, we should point out that we have endorsed Hirt and have said we think she is best qualified to serve District 9. We have said that several times.
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.
- Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial, May 25, 1996
Wendy Davis lost that race, and a few months later, she sued the Star-Telegram.
Just a few months after her suit was first filed, Davis’ libel claim against the newspaper was unceremoniously thrown out by the Court – as Judge Martin Richter granted a summary judgment against Davis without hearing any testimony. Rather than moving on, Wendy Davis appealed the case to a higher court.
In 2000, nearly four years after her loss, Texas’ 5th Court of Appeals rejected Davis’ claim that she was libeled by the Star-Telegram during her 1996 campaign for city council. Rubbing salt in the wound, the court wrote in its 3-0 decision that they “cannot conclude a person of ordinary intelligence would perceive the statements as defamatory.”
Wendy Davis pressed forward ever still with her libel case, appealing to the Texas Supreme Court, which declined to hear her case.
“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,” said Charles Babcock, the newspaper’s attorney. “If Ms. Davis’s theories had been correct, there would have been a serious chill on the media to report on campaigns.”
Indeed. Wendy Davis’ anti-1st Amendment libel lawsuit helped to clog up the Texas court system for more than four years and demonstrated that she is severely out of touch with not only Texans but the U.S. Constitution itself. Texas doesn’t need a thin-skinned, liberal trial lawyer who is antagonistic toward freedom of speech. Wendy Davis is wrong for Texas.