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Proposal would protect media, protesters from lawsuit intimidation

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DES MOINES — An Iowa House Judiciary subcommittee advanced legislation that could block so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP), such as the libel suit that led a Carroll newspaper to start a GoFundMe fundraiser to cover legal expenses it incurred defending itself against a libel lawsuit.

The lawsuits are intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics — “essentially to prevent ‘bad’ stories from being published” by burdening news media with the cost of a legal defense, Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, said.

That was the case in Carroll when a former police officer sued the Daily Times Herald for libel in 2017 after it published the results of a two-month investigation of his relationship with a teenage girl.

The court ruled in favor of the family-owned newspaper, but it incurred $140,000 in legal expenses defending itself against an “existential threat to our existence,” co-owner Douglas Burns said Thursday. The GoFundMe campaign raised about $99,000.

Burns was “heartened” by the proposed legislation resulting from efforts by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Steven Holt, R-Denison, and Democratic Attorney General Tom Miller.

Burns is supportive of legislation “to eliminate the chilling effect on coverage of elected officials and public officials,” he said. “I hope the legislation will protect other media practicing accountability journalism.”

Hite called House Study Bill 537 a “safety valve” in very specific cases. A motion could be filed that would result in dismissal of the lawsuit if a judge found it lacked merit.

Susan Patterson Plank of the Iowa Newspaper Association told the subcommittee the bill “isn’t a newspaper bill. It’s a First Amendment bill.”

“Lawsuits like this are devastating and stop people from doing the right thing in their community,” she said.

There are 271 newspapers in Iowa. One hundred of them are in small communities with fewer than 1,000 subscribers.

If enacted, Iowa would join 29 other states with anti-SLAPP protections, Eric Tabor of the Attorney General’s Office said.

The American Civil Liberties Union Iowa is generally supportive of anti-SLAPP measures because, in addition to protecting media, they protect protesters from nuisance lawsuits, lobbyist Daniel Zeno said.

“It’s an important piece of legislation just to ensure that free speech is protected,” Hite said.

He plans to send the bill to the full Judiciary Committee.

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