By Jeff Mosier
The Dallas Morning News
Originally published May 12, 2018
The Texas Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit Friday in which a couple claimed The Dallas Morning News defamed them when it published a column disclosing their decision to omit information about their teenage son’s suicide from a paid obituary.
John and Mary Ann Tatum, whose 17-year-old son shot himself, sued The News and now-retired Metro columnist Steve Blow in 2011 over allegations that the column accused the couple of lying about their son’s death.
The 2010 column, “Shrouding suicide leaves its danger unaddressed,” urged the public to talk more openly about suicide. Without naming the Tatums, Blow quoted from the obituary, which said the teen died from injuries sustained in a car accident, and wrote that suicide remains “cloaked in such secrecy, if not outright deception.”
The court’s opinion said that in accusing the Tatums of deception, the column was reasonably capable of being defamatory. But the court went on to hold that “to the extent that the column states that the Tatums acted deceptively, it is true.” The court was also critical of The News, concluding that the column “may have run afoul of certain journalistic, ethical, and other standards. But the standards governing the law of defamation are not among them.”
“We are sorry for the Tatum family’s tragic loss of their son,” said Mike Wilson, editor of The News. “With its unanimous ruling, the court affirmed that Steve Blow’s piece was clearly an opinion column protected by law.”
The Tatums’ attorney, Joe Sibley, said he could not comment since The News was a party to the lawsuit.
The Tatums’ son shot himself hours after he was involved in a serious car crash in 2010, according to court records. The medical examiner ruled the teen’s death a suicide.
Blow, who did not contact the Tatums before writing his column, called for the public to more openly discuss mental illness, which is often a factor in suicides.
According to the court, the Tatums chose the wording of the obituary “to reflect their conviction that Paul’s suicide resulted from suicidal ideation arising from a brain injury [sustained in the car crash] rather than from any undiagnosed mental illness.”
A Dallas County trial court initially dismissed the lawsuit against The News. But in late 2015, the 5th District Court of Appeals ruled that the lawsuit could go forward.
That decision, which backed the Tatums’ defamation claims, said readers could “construe the column to suggest that Paul suffered from mental illness.”
The state Supreme Court saw the column differently.
“Here, the gist of Blow’s column is that bereaved families often do society a disservice by failing to explicitly mention when suicide is the cause of death,” according to the opinion. “Blow holds up the Tatums as an example of the very phenomenon that his column seeks to discourage.”
Attorney Paul Watler of Jackson Walker, who represented The News in the lawsuit, described Justice Jeff Brown’s opinion as “thoroughly grounded in the guarantee of free speech and free press that is enshrined in both the First Amendment and the Texas Constitution. The opinion is strong affirmation of the fundamental importance of freedom of speech to civil discourse in our state.”