When a City of San Antonio spokeswoman filed, but did not serve, a protective order against her husband, she did not expect to see a news story detailing the order published by the local newspaper.

The San Antonio Express-News published an April 14 article disclosing the existence of the order that Laura Elizabeth Mayes, the City’s assistant director of Government and Public Affairs, filed on March 31 against her husband, local attorney TJ Mayes. She declined to serve the order.

The article sparked outrage among domestic violence prevention advocates while journalism experts acknowledged an ethical gray area in terms of the couple’s prominence in the community, news value to the community, and the sensitive nature of domestic violence incidents.

TJ Mayes had moved to New Orleans after an unusually public departure from the law firm where he was employed, notable for a string of accusatory social media posts by Mayes aimed at the firm’s managing partner. He also had made other, more personal postings that left friends and colleagues concerned about his well-being.

In a prepared statement, Express-News Editor-in-chief Marc Duvoisin defended the paper’s decision to publish its article disclosing the protective order. 

“San Antonio has notably high rates of domestic violence and domestic homicide,” Duvoisin said. “When an influential public person here is accused of domestic violence, when his wife obtains a court protective order against him because ‘I fear for my safety and the safety of my daughter,’ we think it is newsworthy.”

Media reports about protective orders are unusual, except in instances where someone violates one or is also charged with criminal acts of violence or threatening behavior.

“If victims think their private lives are open game for the media, they have even less incentive to seek protection and help that could save their lives,” said Gloria Aguilera Terry, CEO of the Texas Council on Family Violence. “And victims do not need another reason to feel trapped in an abusive situation.”

The former executive editor of The Washington Post, now a journalism professor, said the article should not have been published without comment from Laura Mayes, and questioned why the newspaper did not correct its headline and article that suggested the order had been served. 

The article’s headline read, ‘Prominent San Antonio lawyer hit with protective order filed by his wife.’ The article says he was “slapped” with the order. 

The original article is “factually inaccurate,” said Leonard Downie Jr., the Post’s top editor for 17 years and a professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “There are real questions about how this has been handled by the newspaper.”

A chilling effect?

The article sent ripples of chaos through the Mayes’ family, most notably TJ Mayes, who was struggling with mental health issues. He has since been discharged from a hospital after a suicide attempt and is receiving treatment. 

“Four days after we published our story online and three days after it appeared in print, Laura Mayes asked us to withdraw the article from the internet because of a family emergency,” Duvoisin said. “In response, we made the digital story temporarily inaccessible to search engines. The next day, after determining that the emergency had passed, we made the story publicly accessible once again.”

TJ Mayes said he was puzzled by the newspaper’s action. “When they learned I lived, they put it back up,” he said Friday. “The damage was done.”

The original article did not include a comment from Laura Mayes or her attorney, who could not be reached by the paper’s print deadline, according to the newspaper. The article appeared in the April 15 print edition of the Express-News on the front page of its Metro section. The online version was later updated with her statement, including that the order hadn’t been served.

“It’s both vile and unethical that this newspaper would run a story about an unserved, sealed protective order that simply retraumatizes my family and me,” Mayes wrote. “These incidents were isolated as my husband has been experiencing severe mental stress. … Stories like this are why people don’t come forward and why there is a troubling stigma for people to seek mental health care.”

If the article was an attempt to encourage reports of child and spousal abuse, Mayes said it has had the opposite effect.

“Now I wish I hadn’t said anything or gone to anybody,” she told the San Antonio Report. “I wish I would have just put up with whatever was happening and just kept my head down because at least I would have had [control] over my story and he would have gotten the help he needed.”

The article does not include links to resources for survivors of domestic abuse to find help, nor does it address the city’s ongoing struggles with increased rates of domestic violence, Mayes noted.

One domestic violence prevention group took issue with the article’s publication, saying that such acts ultimately put victims in danger. In a prepared statement sent to the Express-News’ editorial board, the Texas Council on Domestic Violence said it was “shocked” that the paper, which “has taken the lead in Bexar County to report and raise awareness on the issue of domestic violence in a compelling and responsible manner,” would publish details of the temporary protective order.

“By writing and publishing the story, the Express-News has now given the message to domestic violence survivors across Texas – particularly high-profile survivors – that if they finally draw up the courage to seek safety for themselves and their family, they risk ending up in the paper.”

Public record, private distress

Mayes was preparing to moderate a public meeting April 14 when she received a text from reporter Elizabeth Zavala around 5:30 p.m. seeking comment on the protective order. Earlier attempts to contact Mayes’ attorney were apparently unsuccessful.

At the time, Mayes believed the contents of the order were sealed, she said. They were not. Her position as a liaison for journalists and residents to connect with their local government often demands after-hours work – and frequent text messages. She thought she had time to conclude the meeting before responding to the reporter’s inquiry. Although it had not been served and the protective order identified Mayes and her husband only by their initials, the content was public record.

“We found out about Laura Mayes’ protective order against her husband, T.J. Mayes, through a routine check of public court files,” Duvoisin said. “The case was not sealed, as some have suggested, nor was it ‘leaked’ to us.”

The newspaper reached TJ Mayes for comment about the order. But because it had not been served, he was not aware of it. “I’m quite shocked by it, and I am disgusted by it,” he told the Express-News. 

Downie questioned whether the paper should have published the article without a response from Laura Mayes. And since the respondent, her husband, was unaware of it – that should have been a red flag, he said.

“I do not believe that the newspaper should have published the story in advance of talking to his wife who filed the order to better understand what it was about,” Downie said. “That would have raised the issue of her feelings about that having it be public and her feelings about the fact that she believes he’s got a mental problem.” 

Even then, a decision would need to be made about whether to publish in the context of understanding the husband’s mental health.

“I don’t have any firm sense of what I would do if I was in that editor’s position, but I do know that this first story should not have been published until they talked to the wife,” Downie said.

The day after Laura Mayes filed the order, she directed her attorney not to serve it because she learned her husband was seeking help. 

“He doesn’t deserve to have his reputation ruined,” she told the San Antonio Report two days after the article was published. “TJ’s been an advocate for mental health and domestic violence [awareness]. … The irony [is] that that’s two of TJ’s passions.”

Her concerns about her husband’s mental health became dangerously close to reality on Sunday, April 18, when TJ Mayes took an overdose of pills and was hospitalized in New Orleans. 

“I can understand why there was an impulse to publish” the story about the protective order, he told the San Antonio Report, but he hopes this “sensational journalism” doesn’t further stigmatize mental health issues.

Tom Mayes, a prominent local pediatrician and TJ Mayes’ father, said his son is undergoing treatment for mental illness. “We are left to pick up pieces,” he said. “… I hold the Express-News completely responsible for this.”

Deciding what’s newsworthy

There are several factors that play into the seemingly straightforward questions of what is newsworthy, who is a public figure, and what constitutes the public interest in such matters? 

When Mayor Ron Nirenberg was a councilman, TJ Mayes served as his chief of staff. He served in the same capacity for Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. Mayes was chair of Bexar County’s Joint Opioid Task Force, and then joined a San Antonio law firm led by Martin Phipps as a junior partner in January 2019. The firm is representing Bexar County in a multimillion dollar lawsuit against the pharmaceutical industry’s opioid makers. 

Mayes made local headlines in January when he and other members of the Phipps firm resigned, publicly calling Phipps a “crook” and accusing him of abusing several women. Mayes filed a formal complaint against Phipps with the Texas Bar Association, stating that Phipps asked Mayes and another of the firm’s employees to arrange for a marriage license from Phipps’ recent marriage to another staffer to be destroyed in exchange for political favors. Phipps, who denies the claims, was later arrested for telephone harassment, and has now filed his own temporary protective order against Mayes. 

Laura Mayes has risen in the City organization in recent years to become the principal contact for media members seeking information about City Council and the Government & Public Affairs Department.

“It’s always a very difficult decision to decide not to report something on the public record, and involves a prominent person who himself had … a public resignation,” Downie said. “He is clearly a public figure in San Antonio of some note.”

TJ Mayes moved to New Orleans in late March to pursue new business opportunities and “ride out the storm” of his mental health issues, he said. He moved back to Texas this week but said he has no plans to return to politics or live in San Antonio.

“News value diminishes with distance from public office,” said Bruce Shapiro,  executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “On the face of it, the personal problems of someone who’s been out of the public eye for a couple of months is less than it was when they were in a position of public importance.

“If it’s about low-level gotcha journalism about a local, former public figure, without broader consequence, then it’s probably more damaging to the victim than it is beneficial to the public interest,” Shapiro said.

Before the story published, Duvoisin said he was contacted by local domestic violence prevention advocates who voiced their concerns.

“A group of two editors and two reporters, one of whom has expertise in domestic violence, carefully considered these objections,” he said. “We concluded that given the circumstances in this case, the public interest was best served by disclosure.”

Beyond the ethics of publishing details of marital strife involving people who are current or former mid-level public officials, the matter raises the question of whether making details of a protective order public could endanger the person seeking it.

On average, the San Antonio Police Department receives 40,000 family violence-related calls per year. According to Bexar County Sheriff’s Office data compiled by the Collaborative Commission on Domestic Violence, the number of family violence-related reports filed annually has increased from more than 10,000 reports filed in 2014 to more than 13,000 in 2019.

The commission, aimed at combating domestic violence in San Antonio, was founded in 2019 when statistics showed there were 25 domestic violence deaths in Bexar County in 2018 – the highest rate in the state.

Judge Peter Sakai established the commission with a special order. Sakai was also the judge who signed Laura Mayes’ temporary protective order, given to victims between the time they apply and the final hearing. He declined to comment on the case.

“We are constantly as a community trying to change the narrative around domestic violence,” said Jennifer Hixon, a member of the commission and the City’s violence prevention manager. “And every time something [like the article] happens, that pushes people back into the shadows, we lose ground. And that is hard-fought ground.”

The issue of domestic violence in San Antonio is clearly newsworthy, but how newsworthy depends on context, Shapiro said.

“It strikes me as a high-risk call to base a story on [the] first filing of a protective order that hasn’t even reached the service level, because you don’t know what the outcome is going to be,” Shapiro said.

Journalists have to be “very careful … that you’re not replicating trauma by forcing someone into the public eye, who already may be struggling with shame or embarrassment or a sense of victimization,” Shapiro said. “Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s right. … We could name the victim in every story about a rape trial that we ever cover. And when I started out in reporting we did. But we don’t anymore, because we think that’s wrong … it psychologically and occasionally physically increases the danger on survivors.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis, call the The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Family Violence Prevention Services at 210-733-8810 anytime to speak to crisis intervention specialists.

Correction: The protective order Laura Mayes filed against her husband was not withdrawn as a previous version of this article stated. The article has been updated to clarify that the San Antonio Express-News later reported that the protective order against TJ Mayes had not been served.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org