On Friday, the Supreme Court of Texas issued two important defamation rulings. The first, Kinney v. Barnes, held that injunctions to prohibit defamatory speech do not pass constitutional muster. The second, Burbage v. Burbage Funeral Home, raises the bar on the recovery of compensatory damages.
Injunctions preventing speech are an unconstitutional prior restraint
In Kinney, the plaintiff sought a permanent injunction preventing the defendant from further making further defamatory statements and making the defendant remove defamatory statements. Texas courts had already ruled temporary injunctions preventing additional defamatory statements were unconstitutional prior restraints of free speech.
The Supreme Court of Texas clarified: “We hold that, while a permanent injunction requiring the removal of posted speech that has been adjudicated defamatory is not a prior restraint, an injunction prohibiting future speech based on that adjudication impermissibly threatens to sweep protected speech into its prohibition and is an unconstitutional infringement on Texans’ free-speech rights under Article I, Section 8 of the Texas Constitution.”
Certain injunctions against obscenity or illegal commercial speech are still permitted, but defamation, alone, cannot support an injunction. Because it is a prior restraint, an injunction would only be allowed “when essential to the avoidance of an impending danger . . . and only when it is the least restrictive means of preventing the harm.” Preventing defamation, which can be subject to damages, does not satisfy that test.
You can read the case here – Kinney v. Barnes
What are appropriate damages?
Burbage, meanwhile, involved a messy interfamily squabble where one family member accused the other of engaging in elderly abuse against the matriarch. The jury awarded the individual defendant $6,552,000: $250,000 for past injury to reputation; $2,500,000 for future injury to reputation; $1,000 for past mental anguish; $1,000 for future mental anguish; and $3,800,000 in exemplary damages.
The jury awarded the family-run funeral home $3,050,000: $50,000 for past injury to reputation; $1,000,000 for future injury to reputation; and $2,000,000 in exemplary damages.
The court opined: “Texas law presumes that defamatory per se statements cause reputational harm and entitle a plaintiff to general damages such as loss of reputation and mental anguish. But this presumption yields only nominal damages. Beyond nominal damages, we review presumed damages for evidentiary support.”
Reviewing the evidence, the court noted there was a lot of speculation about the impact the defamatory statements would have on the business. Speculative evidence is not sufficient. The court also drew the distinctions between special damages, nominal damages, reputational damages, economic damages and their interplay with defamation and business disparagement.
In conclusion, the court wrote, “[t]he evidence does not show actual loss of reputation, that anyone believed the defamation, that the Burbage Funeral Home suffered an actual loss, or even the funeral home’s actual value. On the record here, we hold that no evidence supports the jury’s award of $3.8 million in actual damages.”
As a result, the court determined there was no actual damages. With no actual damages, there could be no exemplary damages. Therefore, the plaintiff got nothing other than a piece of paper confirming he was defamed. Honor can be expensive.
Here is the opinion – Burbage