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Court Rejects Bid to Narrow Definition of Public Official in Libel Cases With AM-Scotus Rdp

March 18, 1991

Court Rejects Bid to Narrow Definition of Public Official in Libel Cases With AM-Scotus Rdp Bjt

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court rejected an invitation Monday to narrow the definition of a ″public official,″ who has a more difficult time than a private citizen in trying to win a libel lawsuit.

The justices, without comment, refused to reinstate a libel suit against a Texas newspaper by a former state social worker who says a false 1985 article destroyed her life.

Elda Villarreal, who sued the Corpus Christi Times, had urged the justices to rule she wrongly was found to be a public official.

Since a landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling, public officials and public figures who sue for libel must prove a sued-over statement was made with knowledge or reckless disregard of its falsity. But private citizens can win libel suits by proving only that the sued-over statement was false and was made negligently.

The 1964 ruling and subsequent decisions made it more difficult for those in the public eye to win libel suits. But those rulings have never said specifically how far down into the lower ranks of government employees the ″public official″ designation extends.

Mrs. Villarreal was working as a child protective services specialist for the Texas Department of Human Resources in Nueces County when in 1985 she was mentioned in one paragraph of a Corpus Christi Times article about two girls, not yet in their teens, who had been made prostitutes by their family.

The article said, ″Though police files dating to 1982 cite the 12-year-old as a shoplifter, runaway and curfew violator, welfare agent Elda Villarreal did not petition the court to remove the children until Jan. 25.″

The article did not mention that Mrs. Villarreal was first assigned to the children’s case two days previously, on Jan. 23.

At a 1988 trial on Mrs. Villarreal’s suit against the newspaper’s publisher, Harte-Hanks Communications, and others, a jury found that the article was substantially false, and that she had suffered damages of $160,000.

But the jury also found that Mrs. Villarreal was a public official and that the article was not published with actual malice. The trial judge therefore ruled she was not entitled to any damages.

State appeals courts refused to reinstate the suit.

Mrs. Villarreal’s lawyers said the state courts were wrong. ″Unless mere public employment and newspaper publicity made her a public official, Elda Villarreal was no public official,″ the said.

Lawyers for the newspaper urged the justices to reject Mrs. Villarreal’s appeal, saying she was a public official ″as a matter of law, or at least the jury’s determination that she was is supported by evidence.″

The landmark 1964 decision dealt with an elected official, but a 1965 Supreme Court ruling showed that unelected government employees also can be public officials for libel law purposes.

In Mrs. Villarreal’s case, the state appeals court said, ″Even though (she) may not have affected every citizen’s life on a daily basis, she was engaged in a vital function of state government.″

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