Publishers urge Texas Supreme Court not to hear libel claims against Harvest House Publishers
Led by the Association of American Publishers (AAP), a coalition of groups representing publishers, booksellers and librarians have filed a brief urging the Texas Supreme Court not to review a ruling by the Texas Court of Appeals in Houston, an intermediate appellate court, which granted summary judgment to Harvest House Publishers in a libel action brought by a group called The Local Church. The brief characterizes the ruling by the Texas Court of Appeals as “correct in all respects.”
At issue was The Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, published by Harvest House, an Evangelical Christian publishing house and an AAP member. The 730-page book makes mention in its introduction and appendix of unflattering characteristics of some cults and new religions.
While The Local Church did not challenge any portion of the Encyclopedia that mentioned them directly, they claimed that the very fact that they were included in a book of “cults and new religions” was defamatory because of the general comments regarding characteristics of cults.
The Texas trial court denied a motion for summary judgment, but the Texas Court of Appeals reversed. In dismissing the case, the Texas Court of Appeals cited the Texas Supreme Court ruling in New Times v. Isaacks (a case involving the right to satirize public officials in which AAP had filed a strong amicus brief) holding that a “reasonable reader” would not believe that all of the characteristics cited applied to all of the groups listed. In addition, the Texas Court of Appeals held that the determination that a group is a cult “is not actionable because the truth or falsity of the statement depends upon ones’ religious beliefs, an ecclesiastical matter which cannot and should not be tried in a court of law.”
Citing the Local Church’s “history of suing its critics,” the amicus brief points out that that “The ‘chilling effect’ of meritless libel litigation occurs because publishers are deterred from engaging in truthful or nondefamatory speech by the enormous costs of defending defamation lawsuits….While they assume the role of victim, the transparent weakness of petitioners’ arguments reveals that their real aim is to punish speech they do not like.”
The amicus brief argues that if the case is accepted for review by the Court and reversed, The Local Church’s “untenably expansive interpretation of the ‘of and concerning’ requirement would open authors and publishers of compendia and survey texts to liability for general introductory commentary that no reasonable reader would take to apply to every person or group discussed in the book.”
The brief, which was written by AAP Freedom to Read Counsel Jonathan Bloom (Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP), was joined by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Freedom to Read Foundation (affiliated with the American Library Association), and the Association of American University Presses.
The complete text of the amicus brief can be found on the AAP web site at:
The Association of American Publishers is the national trade association of the U.S. book publishing industry. AAP’s approximately 300 members include most of the major commercial book publishers in the United States, as well as smaller and non-profit publishers, university presses and scholarly societies. AAP members publish hardcover and paperback books in every field, educational materials for the elementary, secondary, post-secondary and professional markets, scholarly journals, computer software and electronic products and services. The Association represents an industry whose very existence depends upon the free exercise of rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.