In 2017, Carroll, Iowa police officer Jacob Smith resigned from the force after a disciplinary investigation regarding sexual encounters between Smith and teenaged girls.
The Carroll Times Herald, published by the local Burns family since 1929, revealed the circumstances of Smith's departure from the force, including a comment by Smith's ex-wife accusing the disgraced former cop of being a "pedophile" and revealing that Smith's previous employer, another Iowa police department, had fired him for inappropriate sexual behavior with a teen girl.
Despite the fact that everything the Herald reported was true, Smith (who admitted his sexual conduct "wasn't right" and "looks like shit") was still able to launch a ruinous libel suit in retaliation, thanks to Iowa's failure to enact anti-SLAPP laws to prevent this kind of conduct. The judge found that the Herald's report was accurate and that Smith's wife's "pedophile" accusation was protected speech, and the Herald carried libel insurance, but they still ended up $140,000 in debt for the portion of the legal fees not covered by their insurer.
Now, the paper is on the brink of bankruptcy, and begging for money on Gofundme.
As Tim Cushing points out on Techdirt, the lawsuit arrives just as far-right figures like Devin Nunes and Donald Trump are promising to make it easier to sue the press, and also as wave after wave of ghastly revelations about sexual abuse by powerful men are coming to light.
Not every defendant will be so lucky. Surviving a baseless lawsuit takes money and time. If plaintiffs have a little of both, they can do more damage than defendants can ever hope to recoup. This is why strong anti-SLAPP laws matter. They deter baseless lawsuits by giving defendants a way to escape before the bleeding begins, and holds plaintiffs responsible for the damage they've caused by forcing them to pay their opponents' legal fees.
Sure, some people were fine with Gawker being run out of business by a vengeful venture capitalist. But would these same people be okay with a small paper closing shop because it made the mistake of printing facts?
Rural Iowa newspaper stares down police lawsuit [Douglas Burns/Gofundme]