Iowa high court extends libel protection to online publishers
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Iowa Supreme Court has given protections against libel lawsuits to Internet publishers but declined to extend them to average citizens, a ruling that media lawyers yesterday called significant.
The Jan. 18 ruling extends free-speech protections long enjoyed by newspapers and broadcasters to companies that distribute Internet content, such as book publishers, experts said. But the court declined to extend those rights to individual social media users, saying the victims of cyberbullying and online smear campaigns should be able to more easily sue for defamation.
University of Iowa journalism professor Lyombe Eko said the court “has given protection to people who are bullied on the Internet, the victims of smears or lies or accusations posted on Facebook and Twitter.” People will be able to sue the attacker, but not the company that hosts the site where the statements are posted, he said.
Media lawyers said the decision modernized Iowa’s libel law by extending free-speech protections to Internet publishers. They had wanted the court to go even farther and give all online communication by citizens the same protections enjoyed by the media at a time when anyone with a computer can publish information.
Still, they were happy with the outcome.
“We were able to radically expand who is considered media. It’s just not news organizations anymore, which is great,” said attorney Mike Giudicessi, who represented a publishing company in the case.
The case involved a 2008 memoir written by former Iowan Scott Weier that describes his relationship with God after a divorce. He paid Author Solutions, Inc., a nontraditional publisher, to design a cover and print copies that he could distribute to bookstores and acquaintances. Author Solutions sold three copies on its website and one through Amazon.
Weier’s ex-wife, Beth Weier, and her father filed a lawsuit against Scott Weier and Author Solutions over statements in the book they considered false and defamatory, including that Beth Weier was abused by her father, suffered from mental illness and was a bad mother.
A court granted an injunction preventing Scott Weier from distributing his book during the lawsuit, and ruled in 2010 that neither the author nor the publishing company qualified for free-speech protections given to traditional media. “ASI is not the New York Times,” a judge wrote.
After an unusually long 18-month review, justices voted 5-2 to overturn that ruling, saying ASI is a media defendant and therefore dismissed the company from the lawsuit.
The definition of media goes beyond businesses that report news, the justices found, extending protections now to any person or company that receives writings and makes them “more suitable and accessible for the public to read.” Scott Weier does not have the same protections and the case against him can proceed because the statements were not of public concern, the court found.
Weier, ASI and media companies had asked the court to strike down a legal doctrine known as libel per se that gives individuals less protection than media from defamation lawsuits. The doctrine presumes that in cases involving regular citizens, the statements were false and the plaintiffs were damaged. In contrast, lawsuits against media require plaintiffs to prove the statements were false and caused damage to their reputation.
Five justices ruled the distinction between media and non-media should stay, saying the Internet has allowed individuals to engage in anonymous attacks that give rise to defamation. Individuals have less incentive to guard their reputation for accuracy than media firms, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote.
Mansfield rejected arguments that the Internet allowed targets of defamation to quickly rebut false information, or that allowing such lawsuits has become “a drag on free speech in this state.”
“We are not persuaded that the Internet’s ability to restore reputations matches its ability to destroy them,” he said. “We think libel per se plays a useful role in helping to keep our social interactions from becoming ever more coarse and personally destructive.”
Dissenting Justice Daryl Hecht said the Iowa Constitution and the rise in online communications required the court to give individuals the same safeguards as media against lawsuits.
“The right of free speech in our constitution is not a right belonging only to the press: It is the right of every person,” he wrote.
But Beth Weier’s lawyer, Gary Dickey, said he was disappointed the court expanded the definition of media. He said ASI shouldn’t qualify for protections since it simply did “cover art and bound the book and put it on a website.”