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Free-speech ruling aides online firms, not users

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 21, 2013 at 4:45 pm •  Published: January 21, 2013

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — 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 called significant Monday.

Friday's 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.

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