Iowa Lawmaker Seeks Punitive Damages in Libel, Slander Case

April 12, 2012

Both sides intend to appeal an Iowa jury’s decision that a television campaign ad by Democrats libeled and slandered Sioux City Republican Sen. Rick Bertrand during the 2010 campaign, The Des Moines Register reported.

A Woodbury County jury has awarded Bertrand $231,000 in damages in his lawsuit against his Democratic opponent, Rick Mullin, and the Iowa Democratic Party.

Bertrand claimed he was defamed by an ad that said he “put profits ahead of children’s health” when he was a sales agent for a drug company. The party paid for the ad, which was approved by Mullin.

Both sides told The Register that they plan to appeal — Bertrand because he disagrees with the judge’s decision that he can’t pursue punitive damages, and Democrats because they disagree with the verdict.

Bertrand said he thinks his case sends a warning that candidates themselves can be held liable.

“We feel very good that even if you’re a public figure that absolute privilege does not protect lies and slander,” he said.

The legal standard for proving libel or slander is higher for politicians than for private citizens because politicians are considered public figures.

Bertrand’s attorney, Jeana Goosmann, told the Sioux City Journal that the outcome could have national implications because the jury held a political party liable for false personal attacks against a candidate, and that sets a legal precedence.

“The First Amendment does not give unlimited freedom to publish personal lies against anyone, whether or not you are a public figure,” Goosmann said.

Michael Hunt, a spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party, said in a statement that party leaders disagree with the verdict.

“We conducted a fact-based campaign against Senator Bertrand in 2010,” Hunt said.

Democratic officials at party headquarters and at the Legislature declined to comment on the case or how it could potentially change political ads in Iowa.

“This is a big deal,” said Christopher Rants, a former GOP leader in the Iowa House.

“It is going to make candidates and parties very careful in what they say,” he said.

The decision won’t prevent negative ads, but it should send a message to candidates to not make false personal attacks on another candidate’s character or business, Rants said.

Defamation verdicts are frequently overturned on appeal, said Timothy Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa.

“The real question is whether the ad could be considered campaign hyperbole as opposed to a clear factual error,” Hagle said.

Latest Comments

  • April 13, 2012 at 3:19 pm
    Touche', Tom says:
    Right on the money!!!
  • April 13, 2012 at 12:12 pm
    Tom Bruckmeyer says:
    I am surprised a court would get involved in this issue. I mean the average citizen understands they are subject to liability for acts of slander and libel. Politicians on the... read more
  • April 12, 2012 at 6:00 pm
    former Iowegian says:
    Really? If this judgment holds, then Obama should be able to sue everyone who's insinuated that he's a Muslim, a terrorist, an illegal alien, convening death panels for your g... read more
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