Iowa justices: Newspapers can be sued for ‘defamation by implication’

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

DES MOINES, Iowa — Newspapers can be sued for “defamation by implication” even if the comments in question are true, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled late last week.

The high court on March 9 ordered a trial on one count of a lawsuit filed by a former columnist against a newspaper in Ames, ruling that statements the newspaper made about the columnist could be considered defamatory.

In its decision, the court said both private and public figures can be defamed if true statements are presented in a manner that carries false implications.

“We now expressly adopt the principle of defamation by implication. Otherwise, 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 said in its ruling in Stevens v. Iowa Newspapers.

The lawsuit stems from a dispute in 2002, when the Ames Tribune refused to print a sports column submitted by Todd Stevens, a freelance writer. The column criticized an outgoing Iowa State University athletic official, and newspaper editors were troubled by its negative comments that they thought also left questions about the paper’s coverage.

Stevens wrote another version of the column, but newspaper editors still declined to publish it. Stevens read the column on a local radio sports show and told an editor he would stop writing his column.

Editors agreed to publish a “farewell” column, and the column ran June 10, 2002, alongside a column written by the sports editor. Stevens claimed in his lawsuit that the editor’s column defamed him, in part because it said he rarely attended events about which he wrote.

The Supreme Court dismissed several claims in the lawsuit but sent the case back for trial on the claim about Stevens’ attendance at events. The court noted that although it was true that Stevens rarely attended events, it is common for sports columnists to write about events without seeing them in person.

We “conclude that a reasonable jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that this statement was false in its implication and was made with reckless disregard for the truth,” the high court said.

Tribune Publisher Joseph Craig said newspaper officials were happy that most of the lawsuit was dismissed.

“We’re pretty happy that the court ruled in our favor on two of the three counts and disappointed in the third,” said Craig. “Beyond that we just have to give our attorneys time to look at the decision and get back with us.”

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