In a March 2007 decision, the Iowa Supreme Court allowed a defamation action against a newspaper to proceed despite finding the allegedly libelous statements to be true. Justice Jerry Larson’s opinion for the Court in Stevens v. Iowa Newspapers, Inc., 2007 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 34 (Iowa 2007) explicitly recognized “defamation-by-implication” actions in the state, permitting a suit by former The (Ames) Tribune columnist Todd Stevens to continue to trial.
The case arises from an incident in 2002 involving the resignation of Iowa State University’s associate athletic director Elaine Hieber. The Tribune published a column about Hieber’s resignation by its reporter Susan Harman that Stevens believed was too complimentary of Hieber. Stevens wrote a rebuttal column expressing this view. At the time, Stevens had been a freelance journalist who submitted columns to The Tribune for three years. The paper refused to publish Stevens’ original column because it considered the column’s tone too critical of its reporting of Hieber’s resignation. Stevens revised that column and read it on a local radio station. Stevens then chose to stop writing for The Tribune, and his “farewell” column was published alongside a response written by Harman.
Stevens brought his libel action in August 2002 in an Iowa District Court alleging three statements in Harman’s response column were defamatory. Harman’s column states that Stevens “rarely attended events upon which he wrote columns,” that his original column about Hieber’s resignation “contained numerous factual errors and unsubstantiated claims,” and that the revised column “continued to include fatal factual errors and near libelous characterizations.” The district court granted The Tribune’s motion for summary judgment after a hearing in March 2004. The appellate court affirmed in part and reversed in part in January 2006, granting summary judgment to dismiss the libel claims for the second and third statements, but ruling a trial was appropriate to determine whether the first statement was in fact defamatory. Stevens then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The Court found that Stevens himself admitted he was a public figure, and therefore had the burden to show by clear and convincing evidence that the challenged statements were false and made with “actual malice.” Actual malice requires a showing that the defendant made the statements knowing they were false, or with reckless disregard for the truth.
The Court then observed that the three statements Stevens alleged were defamatory were all essentially true. Stevens did attend only about 18% of the games about which he wrote, and there were factual errors in his columns. However, the Court cited to an authoritative treatise, Prosser & Keeton on the Law of Torts sectionsection 116 and 117, which states that a cause of action arises when a series of facts are juxtaposed to imply a defamatory connection between them, or if omitted facts create a defamatory implication. This cause of action had not previously been recognized in Iowa, but the Court interpreted statements from prior state case law as sufficient to justify expanding state law to include defamation-by-implication. The Court said this was necessary because, “[o]therwise, by a careful choice of words in juxtaposition of statements in a publication, a potential defendant may make statements that are true yet just as damaging as if they were actually false.”
The Court also ruled that public figures and officials could bring a defamation-by-implication action. After weighing various authorities, the Court concluded it would be unfair to limit the cause of action only to private individuals. In making this conclusion, the Court cited a law review article that argued the contrary result would create a loophole that media defendants could exploit to defame high profile individuals by using facially neutral statements with a defamatory insinuation. The Court cited further authority from federal circuit opinions recognizing defamation-by-implication actions by public figures.
Finally, the Court applied the legal principles to facts of this case, affirming the Court of Appeals’ decision to permit the action to continue for the first statement. Stevens claims that Harman’s assertion about his lack of attendance implied that he fabricated his columns, and therefore was defamatory. The Court observed that Harman knew attendance at these games was unnecessary for Stevens to write his columns and found Harman’s failure to acknowledge this in her column could lead a reasonable juror to find an implied defamatory falsehood made with actual malice. The Court affirmed the Court of Appeal’s decision to uphold summary judgment for the other two statements and remanded the case for trial.
In an Associated Press article, The Tribune’s editor, Joseph Craig, said, “We’re pretty happy that the court ruled in our favor on two of the three counts and disappointed in the third.” He said they would have discussions with their attorney before taking any further action.
– Scott Schraut, Silha Research Assistant