AUSTIN — The Texas Supreme Court late last week ruled in favor of The Brownsville Herald in a defamation lawsuit filed by a former South Texas sheriff who claimed he was misquoted as making a racially charged comment during a debate.
The Herald reported that Conrado M. Cantu said he was a better candidate than his rival for Cameron County sheriff in 2000 because he was Hispanic, just like 85% of the county’s population.
Cantu sued the newspaper, owned by Freedom Communications Inc., the editor and the reporter who wrote the story. The headline on the front-page story read, “Cantu: No Anglo can be sheriff of Cameron County.”
Cantu denied making such a statement and gave the newspaper a tape of the debate. The editor told the reporter to prepare a follow-up story to clarify Cantu’s comments, according to the appeals court.
An article the next day noted Cantu’s disclaimer. It said that Cantu called for a bicultural sheriff but didn’t mean to suggest that race was an issue. It also quoted one voter who said he heard Cantu say only a Hispanic could be sheriff, and another who said Cantu was misunderstood.
Cantu won the election but filed the defamation lawsuit anyway.
The newspaper said the article was substantially accurate and that accurate coverage of political campaigns is protected from defamation lawsuits. The newspaper also said that Cantu, as a candidate for public office, had to prove that the Herald intended to harm him by publishing the story.
A state district court judge and the 13th Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi ruled against the newspaper in the paper’s motion to have the case dismissed.
The Herald appealed, and the state Supreme Court, in its June 24 ruling in Freedom Newspapers of Texas, et al. v. Cantu, sided with the newspaper, saying “we conclude there was no evidence of actual malice.”
Daniel Cavazos, publisher of the Herald, said the paper was confident the ruling would come once the case moved away from the politics of the local judiciary.
“It really was a frivolous case and it was a shame that it was allowed to exist as long as it did,” Cavazos said. He said the case really was about a politician whose feelings were hurt.
Cantu could not be reached, and his attorney did not immediately return a telephone call from the Associated Press.
Cantu lost a bid for re-election in March, after being indicted the month before on charges of holding a mandatory meeting of jailers to promote his campaign.
He was arrested this month on charges of leading a criminal enterprise while in office that included extortion, drug trafficking and witness tampering. Cantu is accused of receiving payments from known drug traffickers in exchange for releasing sensitive law enforcement information between January 2001 and December 2004, his term in office. He also is accused of using his official powers to protect and assist the drug traffickers.