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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

The definition of media goes beyond businesses that report news, the justices found, extending protections now to any person or company that receives writings and makes them "more suitable and accessible for the public to read." Scott Weier does not have the same protections and the case against him can proceed because the statements were not of public concern, the court found.

Weier, ASI and media companies had asked the court to strike down a legal doctrine known as libel per se that gives individuals less protection than media from defamation lawsuits. The doctrine presumes that in cases involving regular citizens, the statements were false and the plaintiffs were damaged. In contrast, lawsuits against media require plaintiffs to prove the statements were false and caused damage to their reputation.

Five justices ruled the distinction between media and non-media should stay, saying the Internet has allowed individuals to engage in anonymous attacks that give rise to defamation. Individuals have less incentive to guard their reputation for accuracy than media firms, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote.

Mansfield rejected arguments that the Internet allowed targets of defamation to quickly rebut false information, or that allowing such lawsuits has become "a drag on free speech in this state."

"We are not persuaded that the Internet's ability to restore reputations matches its ability to destroy them," he said. "We think libel per se plays a useful role in helping to keep our social interactions from becoming ever more coarse and personally destructive."

Dissenting Justice Daryl Hecht said the Iowa Constitution and the rise in online communications required the court to give individuals the same safeguards as media against lawsuits.

"The right of free speech in our constitution is not a right belonging only to the press: It is the right of every person," he wrote.

But Beth Weier's lawyer, Gary Dickey, said he was disappointed the court expanded the definition of media. He said ASI shouldn't qualify for protections since it simply did "cover art and bound the book and put it on a website."