A Texas district court judge has ordered 16 and Pregnant Season 4 cast member Kristina Head (formerly Kristina Robinson) to reimburse Starcasm’s parent company Chicory Media, LLC for attorneys’ fees incurred in the course of successfully defending Kristina’s defamation lawsuit, which was dismissed on July 12, 2013 under the Texas anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) statute designed to protect those exercising their freedom of speech in regards to a matter of public concern. In addition, the court imposed a $10,000 sanction against Kristina, an option permitted under the statute “to deter the party who brought the legal action from bringing similar actions.”
The lawsuit stemmed from a Starcasm.net article Chicory Media published on March 6, 2012 reporting public Facebook comments made by the mother of Kristina’s deceased fiance John Todd Hight, Jr. after he drowned while swimming off Galveston beach on April 30, 2011.
The article was published less than two weeks after the trailer for 16 & Pregnant Season 4 was released by MTV featuring Kristina mourning the loss of her fiance and stating, “My fiancé passed away. I just remember being pulled ashore, looking around, and him not being there.”
At the root of Kristina’s claims, filed by attorney George G. Lake of Marshall, Texas, was the assertion that not only was Kristina “not a public figure for purpose of the issue addressed by the republished statements and article published by Starcasm” but that Starcasm (as well as co-defendants Star magazine, who published an article on the same Facebook post a couple weeks later, and Perez Hilton who then did his own piece about it on) “is not a media defendant due to the nature of their publication, and the issue addressed was a private issue.” (Those quotes are from Kristina’s filing.)
Our response included, but was not limited to:
Texas law recognizes that a publisher which distributes content online rather than in print is nonetheless a media defendant.
Because Chicory Media, a media defendant, reported on a matter of public concern regarding a public figure, Chicory Media qualifies for protection from an action for defamation pursuant to the TCPA [Texas Citizens Participation Act].
Robinson’s Original Petition alleges no more than that the Article accurately reported the content of Tina Hight’s Facebook posts regarding her deceased son and unidentified members of Robinson’s family. … The Article includes no editorial comment stating that Tina Hight’s Facebook posts were true or false and placed no value judgment on them. Instead, Chicory Media merely reported that Tina Hight had made the Facebook posts, which is an evidentiary fact admitted by Robinson and Robinson does not dispute that Chicory Media accurately reported and quoted them.
Particularly given the popularity of and public interest in “16 and Pregnant,” and Robinson’s willingness to voluntarily inject herself, her pregnancy and the death of her fiancé Hight into the public before millions of viewers and readers, Chicory Media, as a media entity, had the right to accurately report Tina Hight’s Facebook posts without fear of a reprisal by a SLAPP in the form of a defamation lawsuit.
Accordingly … Chicory Media’s statements are substantially true and as a matter of law cannot be the basis of a defamation action, warranting dismissal.
In this case, a preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that Robinson’s lawsuit is premised upon Chicory Media’s speech about a matter of public concern involving a public figure, a participant in the “16 and Pregnant” reality show who voluntarily caused both herself and the death of her fiancé to be of interest and concern to the general public. Further, under Texas law, Chicory Media’s report is substantially true because Chicory Media accurately reported Tina Hight’s accusations. In addition, the defamatory sting is not “of or concerning” Robinson so as to provide a predicate for a defamation per se action. Accordingly, as a matter of law, Robinson cannot meet her burden of proving a prima facie case by clear and specific evidence.
Dismissal of the Original Petition pursuant to the TCPA is appropriate and will further the purpose of the TCPA because it will safeguard the constitutional right of Chicory Media to speak freely on matters of public concern and at the same time protect the rights of persons to file meritorious lawsuits.
A Texas District Court judge agreed with us and granted our motion to dismiss Kristina’s complaint with prejudice on July 12, 2013. After that ruling, we filed a petition to be reimbursed for our attorneys’ fees, as merited when a case is dismissed under the Texas anti-SLAPP statute. In addition to awarding Chicory Media our attorneys’ fees plus imposing the $10,000 sanction, the court also awarded American Media, Inc. (Parent company of Star magazine) their attorneys’ fees plus a $25,000 sanction, and awarded Perez Hilton Management, Inc. their attorneys’ fees plus a $20,000 sanction.
In addition, the court determined that if Kristina decides to file an appeal and it is unsuccessful, she will owe each of the three media defendants an additional $25,000 each. If she files a Petition for Review with the Supreme Court of Texas that is not granted, she will owe an additional $10,000 to each defendant. If the Supreme Court of Texas grants her Petition for Review but the appeal is unsuccessful, Kristina will owe each defendant an additional $25,000.
Throughout the proceedings we felt confident that we were within our First Amendment rights to speak out on this matter of public concern, and we feel vindicated by the court’s unambiguous ruling in the case. We also feel vindicated by the court awarding Chicory Media legal costs (as well as the additional $10,000 sanction), and we plan to aggressively and relentlessly pursue recuperating those expenses using every avenue available under Texas law.
Chicory Media would like to thank our lead attorneys in this case, Phillip J. Zisook and Brian D. Saucier of Deutsch, Levy & Engel, Chartered of Chicago, Illinois, as well as our local counsel, Paul L. Sadler of Henderson, Texas. Though it was an unfortunate situation, it was a real comfort having an experienced legal team with a full understanding of the law and its application throughout the process.