Thursday, January 24, 2013

Iowa High Court Accords Internet Publishers Traditional Media Libel Protection

English: Iowa Supreme Court in Des Moines
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In its 68-page decision last week in Gail Bierman & Beth Weier v. Scott Weier & Author Solutions, Inc. (Case No. 10-1503), the Iowa Supreme Court recognized online publishers as media defendants worthy of the protection of an elevated burden of proof on plaintiffs in defamation claims.

Iowa's High Court conferred the status of bona fide book publisher on Defendant Author Solutions, Inc.("ASI"), an Internet self-publishing company involved in the limited circulation of books, in allowing ASI's summary judgment motion to dismiss plaintiffs' false light invasion of privacy and defamation claims against ASI for publishing co-defendant Scott Weier's post-divorce memoir, Mind, Body and Soul (2008). The plaintiffs, Weier's ex-wife and father-in-law, brought those claims, along with a count alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress, regarding alleged defamatory material in the memoir, including that Beth Weier purportedly was abused by her father, allegedly battled mental illness and was an unfit parent, according to an Associated Press story.

ASI designed the cover and did a limited print run for distribution to bookstores and Scott Weier's acquaintances, reportedly selling three copies on its Web site and another copy on Amazon, the AP article reported. A lower court imposed an injunction barring the sale of the memoir while the lawsuit was pending and granted plaintiffs partial summary judgment, ruling that both defendants committed libel per se by their limited publication of the memoir. Under the doctrine of libel per se, certain statements are considered "actionable in and of themselves without proof of malice, falsity or damage," according to the 5-2 decision by the Iowa Supreme Court.

Writing for the majority, Justice Edward Mansfield said ASI was a media defendant, and the First Amendment dictates that the plaintiffs had to go beyond libel per se and prove that ASI published the memoir containing the offending statements knowing they were false or with reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the allegations, which the court found plaintiffs failed to do.

The High Court said it refused to extend the same protections to defendant Scott Weier because the offending statements at issue did not involve a matter of public concern and because individuals and other non-media defendants have less incentive to protect their reputation for accuracy than do media defendants. The decision said subjecting individual defendants to a finding of libel per se protects victims of cyberbullying and Internet smear campaigns.

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