Defamation

A Small Newspaper In Iowa Wins A Libel Suit, But Legal Costs May Force It To Close

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In July 2017, the Carroll Times Herald was sued for libel after it published the first of a series of investigative pieces about a local cop who was having inappropriate relationships with teenage girls.

A reporter at the family-owned newspaper in Carroll, Iowa, had gotten a tip that then-police officer Jacob Smith was sleeping with two local teenagers. (The age of consent in Iowa is 16; one of the girls was 17 years old, and the other was 19.)

Jared Strong, a Times Herald reporter, spent two months investigating the claims, interviewing the girls and corroborating witnesses, and reviewing public and personnel records. However, before the paper could publish any of its stories, Smith quit the police force.

On July 19, 2017, the day after the Times Herald published its first article about Smith, he filed a libel suit contending that his reputation had been destroyed, along with his employability as a law enforcement officer. The complaint, according to the Times Herald, also took issue with a quote the paper published from Smith’s ex-wife calling him a “pedophile.”

On May 21, 2018, Iowa District Court Judge Thomas Bice dismissed the suit, writing in a 10-page ruling that “the article is accurate and true, and the underlying facts are undisputed.” Bice also wrote that the ex-wife’s statement was an opinion, not a factual statement, and as such was protected under the First Amendment.

Despite the legal victory, the legal costs associated with the libel suit may force theTimes Herald to shut down. Unlike 29 other states in the U.S., Iowa doesn’t have an anti-SLAPP law, which is intended to keep people from using the threat of a lawsuit to intimidate others from exercising their First Amendment rights. Many anti-SLAPP statutes include a provision that requires the person who files a meritless libel or slander suit to pay the defendant’s attorney’s fees if they lose the case.

In an interview with The Washington Post, the newspaper’s co-owner, Douglas Burns, said that he needs to raise $140,000 for costs related to the suit that aren’t covered by the paper’s libel insurance. Burns has started a GoFundMe page to solicit the public’s help in raising the funds he needs to keep the newspaper solvent.

The Washington Post Carroll Times Herald Iowa State Daily


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