NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · IOWA · Libel · March 12, 2007
True statements can be defamatory by implication
March 12, 2007 · Private- and public-figure plaintiffs in Iowa can now sue for “defamation by implication” even if all if the statements in question are true, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The court said that if a true fact is not properly or thoroughly explained, it can become defamatory if, read a certain way, it carries false implications.
In the opinion, the court was careful to emphasize that its ruling applied to public officials and public figures – groups that have traditionally enjoyed less protection under libel law.
However, the court also stressed that the case at hand might not constitute defamation by implication.
In 2002, the Ames Tribune refused to print a column by freelance sports columnist Todd Stevens. Shortly afterward, Stevens resigned and the newspaper ran his farewell column alongside an op-ed by sports editor Susan Harman that said Stevens rarely attended the events that were featured in his column. She also wrote that the newspaper had refused to publish the contested column because it “contained numerous factual errors and unsubstantiated claims.”
Stevens sued Harman, Tribune editor Erik Brooks, and the newspaper’s parent company, Iowa Newspapers Inc., for defamation. Stevens alleged that although it was true that he rarely attended the events he covered, Harman’s statement was defamatory because she failed to mention that Stevens’ “personal attendance was not required by professional standards.”
A trial court initially granted summary judgment for Harman, Brooks and the newspaper. But on appeal, both the intermediate court and the Supreme Court held that although Harman’s statements about Brooks “were all basically true,” they possibly became libelous “when the statements are given the spin that Stevens attributes to them.”
Consequently, the court “expressly adopt[ed] the principle of defamation by implication.”
The court insisted, however, that the defamation alleged by Stevens did not necessarily constitute defamation by implication.
The case was sent back to the lower court for consideration under the defamation by implication standard.
(Stevens v. Iowa Newspapers, Inc., Media Counsel: Michael C. Cox, Koley Jessen, Omaha, Nebraska) — ES