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High Court Rejects Revival of Texas Libel Suit

March 18, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today refused to reinstate a libel lawsuit against a Texas newspaper by a former state social worker who says a false 1985 article destroyed her life.

The court, without comment, let stand rulings that defeated Elda Villarreal’s suit against the Corpus Christi Times.

Mrs. Villarreal had urged the justices to rule she wrongly was found to be a ″public official″ who could not win a libel suit without proving the article was published with knowledge or reckless disregard of its falsity.

Since a landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling, public officials and public figures who sue for libel must prove such ″actual malice.″ But private citizens can win libel suits by proving only that the statement in contention 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 she was mentioned in one paragraph of a 1985 Corpus Christi Times article about two pre-teen girls 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.

The appeal acted on today said, ″The newspaper destroyed Mrs. Villarreal’s life.″ The appeal said she was ostracized at her work and then fired. ″Even though a court reinstated her in her job, she was treated like a pariah by her fellow workers,″ it said.

Lawyers for Mrs. Villarreal said she ultimately resigned and had to undergo psychiatric treatment for ″depression, anxiety and distress caused by the Times article.″

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.

A state appeals court upheld that ruling, and the Texas Supreme Court refused to hear Mrs. Villarreal’s appeal last Oct. 31.

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.

″The public official designation applies at the very least to those among the hierarchy of government employees who have, or appear to the public to have, substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of governmental affairs,″ the high court said in that 1965 ruling.

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.″

″We do not see how, in a society where child abuse is recognized as a burning issue, it can be argued that appellant is not a person occupying a post which invites public scrutiny,″ the state court added.

The case is Villarreal vs. Harte-Hanks, 90-1206.

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