Editor's note: This is a preview of an article that appears in the spring 2013 print issue of Gateway Journalism Review.
In mid-January, the Iowa Supreme Court decided to maintain the distinction in Iowa state law between “media” and “non-media” defendants in defamation cases, with the latter easier to sue for some types of libel. In Bierman v. Weier, the court said the distinction is “a well-established component of Iowa’s defamation law.”
The decision raises the question of whether bloggers would get the greater protection of media companies or the lesser protection of non-media defendants.
The Iowa court retained the distinction in the context of “libel per se” cases. These cases involve statements that the law deems to be inherently defamatory, so that the plaintiff does not have prove actual harm to his or her reputation. Traditionally, examples of such statements include those saying that someone has committed a crime, is sexually promiscuous or has a “loathsome disease.”
The Bierman case is a libel suit
based on Weier’s memoir, “Mind, Body and Soul,” which focuses on Weier’s personal transformation after his divorce from plaintiff Beth Weier. Scott Weier paid vanity publisher Author Solutions Inc. $3,183.81 to design and print 250 copies of the book, and he distributed 20 to 30 copies to friends, family, and local businesses. In addition, three copies were sold through Author Solutions’ website, and one sold through Amazon.com. The rest of the books are in storage.
One of the statements from the book that was at issue in the case alleged that the author’s ex-wife suffered from mental illness because her father, plaintiff Gail Bierman, had molested her as a child. The father’s suit against Scott Weier alleged that this statement claimed he had committed a crime – molestation of his daughter – and was thus libel per se.
Under Iowa law, the court said, “[w]hen the defendant is a media defendant … presumptions of fault, falsity, and damages are not permissible, and thus the common law doctrine of libel per se cannot apply.” So the question became whether Scott Weier and Author Solutions were media defendants.