Cop's Bogus Defamation Lawsuit Nearly Puts A Small Iowa Newspaper Out Of Business

from the all-the-anti-SLAPP-legislation-motivation-anyone-needs dept

Sometimes the goal of a libel lawsuit isn't to win. Sometimes the goal is to simply inflict as much financial pain as possible. Sometimes all the plaintiff really wants is to destroy the entity they're suing. It's more about being vindictive than being vindicated.

Baseless defamation lawsuits are easily headed off in states with good anti-SLAPP laws. Unfortunately, there are only a small number of states with a law worth invoking. And there's no federal anti-SLAPP law, so vexatious litigants (like, say… Devin Nunes) are free to inflict financial pain on their opponents without worrying about paying the other side's legal fees when their cases are tossed.

Even if you win in court, you can still lose in life. Without a solid fee-shifting provision that makes the losing party responsible for the winner's expenses, plaintiffs don't need to win their lawsuits to emerge victorious.

That's the case here. A small Iowa newspaper is facing the possibility of going out of business, thanks to a bogus defamation lawsuit. The suit was filed by a local police officer who didn't like having the public being informed about his multiple underage dalliances.

The Carroll Times Herald article (former) Officer Jacob Smith sued over was published in 2017. It detailed an investigation of Smith's off-duty hobbies, the ensuing investigation, and Smith's resignation. Here's the Times Herald's recounting of Smith's not-so-illustrious law enforcement career.

The Times Herald’s investigation found that Smith was fired from his first police job in eastern Iowa in 2015, in part, because he sent inappropriate private messages on Facebook to a 16-year-old girl while he was on duty. Following his hire in Carroll, a 17-year-old girl moved into his house while she still attended high school, and she was later accused of defacing the car of a 19-year-old woman with whom Smith had a brief relationship.

One day after this article was published, Officer Smith sued the paper. He alleged his reputation had been damaged by the alleged libel and swore that his career as a law enforcement officer was over. (Smith was either unfamiliar with the cop shop revolving door, or was conveniently ignoring this [awful] truism to increase potential damages.)

The court dismissed Officer Smith's case, finding the paper's article was based on plenty of facts. These included recordings of city council meetings where Smith's messages to the 16-year-old girl were discussed, as well as Smith's own deposition in which he admitted that dating a 17-year-old "wasn't right" and "looked like shit."

Here's what the judge had to say about that:

“The article at issue is accurate and true, and the underlying facts undisputed,” [Judge Thomas] Bice wrote in his 10-page ruling.

The officer also claimed the newspaper's publication of a quote from his ex-wife -- one in which she called the officer a "pedophile" -- was also defamatory. The judge said the ex-wife's opinion (which seems to be based on Smith's fondness for underage girls) was protected speech. Further, the court said the officer's resignation was of public interest and the paper's reporting served that interest without crossing the line into libel.

The paper won, but it's losing.

A small Iowa newspaper that exposed a police officer's sexual relationships with a teenage girl is raising money after successfully fighting a libel lawsuit filed by the police officer.

Douglas Burns, vice president of the Carroll Times Herald, said the western Iowa newspaper's investigation and resulting lawsuit cost it thousands of dollars in expenses and lost revenue.

More than $140,000 to be exact. That's what's still left to be paid after the paper's libel insurance picked up its part of the tab. The paper has been in the Burns family's hands since 1929. Without outside assistance, it could go out of business. Now, Burns is asking readers -- and those generally opposed to baseless legal bullying -- to help out. So far, it seems to be working. A GoFundMe page that has raised more than $45,000 in less than 24 hours.

Not every defendant will be so lucky. Surviving a baseless lawsuit takes money and time. If plaintiffs have a little of both, they can do more damage than defendants can ever hope to recoup. This is why strong anti-SLAPP laws matter. They deter baseless lawsuits by giving defendants a way to escape before the bleeding begins, and holds plaintiffs responsible for the damage they've caused by forcing them to pay their opponents' legal fees.

Sure, some people were fine with Gawker being run out of business by a vengeful venture capitalist. But would these same people be okay with a small paper closing shop because it made the mistake of printing facts?

Filed Under: anti-slapp, defamation, free speech, iowa, jacob smith, journalism, newspapers, police, slapp
Companies: the carroll times herald


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  • icon
    Gary (profile), 22 Oct 2019 @ 12:32pm

    That seems like an insane amount of money for such spurious claims.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2019 @ 1:06pm

    But, unfortunately, it's an all-too-plausible insane amount of money for legal expenses to defend against spurious and malicious litigation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2019 @ 1:09pm

    If it cost the paper $140k plus whatever their insurance paid to defend this lawsuit... how much did it cost the officer? Did he bankrupt himself in the process? (Here's hoping)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    MO'B (profile), 22 Oct 2019 @ 1:41pm

    A better idea

    would be to make the lawyer at least jointly responsible for the fees, if not all of it. There would be a lot less bogus suits if the lawyer that filed this crap was on the hook for those fees.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2019 @ 8:27pm

      Re: A better idea

      No they need to have their genitals nailed to the floor metaphorically. Losing money alone isn't enough because they can play the odds against those who can't fight back. Only stripping away their profession in entirety for abuses will solve it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 22 Oct 2019 @ 2:14pm

    Now apply this kind of outcome to the CASE Act and the copyright tribunals it would set up, and…well, I think you can put the picture together on your own.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    beavis, 22 Oct 2019 @ 2:34pm

    Sees like your post could have included a picture of the sue happy (refer to lawsuit) former cop.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 22 Oct 2019 @ 3:01pm

      I don’t see why this article needs an image of former Carroll, Iowa police officer Jacob Smith. The original article about former Carroll, Iowa police officer Jacob Smith, to which this article links, contains an image of former Carroll, Iowa police officer Jacob Smith. Mike didn’t need to post an image of former Carroll, Iowa police officer Jacob Smith, and I fail to see how an image of former Carroll, Iowa police officer Jacob Smith would improve this article about former Carroll, Iowa police officer Jacob Smith.

      (…think that’s enough SEO?)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        nasch (profile), 23 Oct 2019 @ 7:20am

        Re:

        Your comment about former Carroll, Iowa police officer Jacob Smith, fired for dating underage girls, may not have contained enough references to the fact that former Carroll, Iowa police officer Jacob Smith was fired for dating underage girls.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Wendy Cockcroft (profile), 23 Oct 2019 @ 7:42am

          Re: Re:

          Eh, Google penalises attempts to game the system. A smarter way around it is to use each of the keywords separately as much as possible but to give the full description to images and headers. You then mix in the other words separately. The story would then go

          *#Carroll, Iowa police officer Jacob Smith sues local paper for defamation over 'pedophile' comment, true facts

          The Carroll Times Herald is being sued over an article detailing an investigation and disciplinary proceedings against Jacob Smith, who has since been dismissed from the local police force.*

          You then sprinkle in the town's name, state, occupation/department, and the name of the officer throughout the article. Subheadings should have separate references and should not read like an SEO farm.

          You're welcome.

          --I actually read up on the subject--

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    anonymous, 22 Oct 2019 @ 3:05pm

    re: baseless suits

    I see you have negected to mention Shiva Ayyadurai and the fact that he didn't invent email in an article discussing baseless lawsuits.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jordan Chandler, 22 Oct 2019 @ 4:11pm

    sue

    Can they not counter sue for court fees and lawyer fees? I mean they proved 0 part of their lawsuit

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Tanner Andrews (profile), 22 Oct 2019 @ 8:44pm

      Re: sue

      Can they not counter sue for court fees and lawyer fees? I mean they proved 0 part of their lawsuit

      Generally speaking, no. The American system is for each side to pay its own fees, absent statutory or contractual provision otherwise. Arcambel v. Wiseman, 3 U.S. 306 (1796). For tort claims, there generally are no such statutory provisions.

      A good anti-SLAPP statute can help. Sometimes a good offer-of-judgment statute can reduce defendant's exposure as well.

      Talk to a lawyer licensed in your state for actual information rather than vague generalities.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 22 Oct 2019 @ 5:16pm

    Yeah, well, Gawker only reported facts (aka, truths) as well.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Wendy Cockcroft (profile), 23 Oct 2019 @ 7:44am

      Re:

      Gawker published intimate video (made without his consent) of Hulk Hogan having sex with someone else's wife, which he wasn't aware of before it was published. Not okay. Damn creepy, if you ask me.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2019 @ 9:34pm

    Gawker was terrible

    I actually think if the definition of journalism devolved to reporting on who had sex with who and then proceeded to show as many non-consensual images as possible there would be a real movement to change the first amendment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 23 Oct 2019 @ 2:45am

      Good thing it hasn’t, or your fantasy might become a reality.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Oct 2019 @ 2:54am

        Re:

        1. I wouldn't like that.

        2. Gawker's behavior toward Hogan kind of follows that pattern and the I don't consider the "news" about Thiel's sexual preferences to be valid "news" either.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Stephen T. Stone (profile), 23 Oct 2019 @ 4:14am

          I don't consider the "news" about Thiel's sexual preferences to be valid "news"

          Your opinion is irrelevant. You’re not the arbiter of what news is “valid” — or protected by the First Amendment, for that matter.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 23 Oct 2019 @ 4:39am

            Re:

            My opinion more relevant and valid than yours because I'm not being an asshole. I can be the arbiter of whatever I want. The courts agreed that gawker was also an asshole because they lost the lawsuit.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 23 Oct 2019 @ 4:50am

              Re: Re:

              I can be the arbiter of whatever I want.

              Only so long as you do not try to impose your arbitration on other people.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • icon
                Wendy Cockcroft (profile), 23 Oct 2019 @ 7:46am

                Re: Re: Re:

                It's not a problem till it's their problem, AC.

                If our right to privacy is subordinate to someone's "right" to make money by making our lives a misery, that's a problem. They shouldn't be able to hide behind the 1st Amendment if there's no compelling public interest.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              Toom1275 (profile), 23 Oct 2019 @ 8:04am

              Re: Re:

              My opinion more relevant and valid than yours because I'm not being an asshole.

              [Asserts facts not in evidence]

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 23 Oct 2019 @ 11:50am

              Re: Re:

              “My opinion more relevant and valid than yours because I'm not being an asshole.”

              No bro it just makes you look like a thin skinned bitch.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              Stephen T. Stone (profile), 23 Oct 2019 @ 3:04pm

              I can be the arbiter of whatever I want.

              Only in regards to your own perception of facts and reality. You can’t, you shouldn’t be able to, and you shouldn’t try to force your perceptions upon me or anyone else.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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