Today the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously dismissed a defamation case filed by Republican State Senator Rick Bertrand over a 2010 negative television ad. You can read the full ruling here (pdf). I’ve posted a few excerpts below.
The Iowa Democratic Party ran the ad on behalf of Democratic candidate Rick Mullin shortly before the 2010 general election. Bertrand immediately filed a defamation lawsuit, in what I assumed was a stunt to change the media narrative. However, he pursued the case after winning the Iowa Senate race. In 2012, a jury decided in favor of Bertrand and awarded him $231,000 in damages. Later, a district court judge reduced the damages to $50,000 but determined that the tv ad constituted “implied libel.” The judge concluded that several statements in the commercial, though technically accurate, created a misleading impression about Bertrand. Both sides appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court. Mullin and the Iowa Democratic Party asked the justices to overturn the original verdict, while Bertrand defended his libel claim and objected to the damages being reduced.
I always expected the verdict to be overturned on appeal, because of extensive case law supporting strong protections for political campaign speech, as well as a high bar for any public figure claiming defamation (libel or slander).
Chief Justice Mark Cady cited many judicial opinions in his ruling, joined by Justices Thomas Waterman, Daryl Hecht, Bruce Zager, and David Wiggins. Justices Edward Mansfield and Brent Appel recused themselves from this case for reasons Bleeding Heartland discussed here. During the oral arguments in January, some observers thought Waterman sounded sympathetic to Bertrand’s attorney–which goes to show comments made during oral arguments don’t necessarily reflect the way a judge will decide a case.
This morning, Bertrand told the Des Moines Register, “The Iowa Supreme Court failed the people of Iowa and they failed the nation today. They did not show the courage to really say no to lies and corruption in politics.” Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal released the following statement: “We are pleased with the decision by the Iowa Supreme Court. The decision affirms our original position: the communication in question was factually accurate and protected free speech.”