NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · IOWA · Libel · Jan. 24, 2006
Libel by implication recognized for first time in Iowa
Jan. 24, 2006 · An Ames, Iowa, sports editor who published true statements about a former sports columnist could have defamed the columnist nonetheless because the statements implied a false and defamatory meaning, an Iowa appellate court ruled in the state’s first libel-by-implication opinion. A three-judge panel overturned the dismissal of one claim of defamation against the editor, but upheld the dismissal of two related claims.
Until now, Iowa courts had not taken an official position on libel by implication, which “occurs when a published statement, although literally true, carries an underlying implication that is false and defamatory,” Judge Daryl L. Hecht of the state Court of Appeals in Des Moines wrote for the unanimous, three-judge panel.
“The Court of Appeals seems to think [libel by implication] does exist, but the trial judge said he couldn’t find a case that directly addresses whether Iowa recognized this cause of action,” said Michael C. Cox, attorney for Iowa Newspapers and editor Susan Harman.
The suit arose out of a column submitted to the paper by Todd Stevens, a freelancer who wrote a twice -weekly column for the Ames Tribune. In a June 2002 column, he disagreed with an earlier column written by Harman. Harman rejected Stevens’ column and also rejected a redraft Stevens submitted.
Stevens decided to quit and asked to write a farewell column. When Stevens’ final column was published, Harman ran a “counter-point” column which claimed that Stevens “rarely attended the events” which he wrote about, that his rejected column contained a number of factual errors, and that his redraft contained “near libelous characterizations.”
In August 2002, Stevens sued the Tribune’s publisher, Iowa Newspapers, and Harman for defamation. A trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case and Stevens appealed.
The appellate panel upheld the dismissal of the claims that Stevens’ column had “numerous factual errors” and was nearly libelous by finding Stevens could not prove Harman wrote those statements with actual malice — knowing and recklessly disregarding the truth.
However, for the claim that Stevens rarely attended the events he covered, the court determined that at “the summary judgment stage, we must view the evidence in a light most favorable to Stevens. When viewed in such a light, we conclude the inferences and implications of Harman’s statement could bear a defamatory meaning,” Hecht wrote.
The court found that since Harman knew that it is not necessary for columnists to be at events they write about, her column implied he was “lazy” and “incompetent” by saying he rarely attended the events.
This implication, the court found, was not “more worth of legal protection than those capable of direct or literal defamatory meaning” and therefore Stevens’ claim did not “fail as a matter of law because it was literally true and not ‘directly defamatory,'” Hecht wrote.
Cox said his clients have not decided whether to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
(Stevens v. Iowa Newspapers, Inc.; Media Counsel: Michael C. Cox, Koley Jessen; Omaha, Neb.) — CM