Free speech, public interest

July 25, 2008

Indiana Code 34-7-7 is intended to protect the free-speech rights of those commenting on “matters of public interest.” Say someone accuses a cop of wrongdoing, and officials decide to investigate, and a newspaper reports the allegations and the investigation. The investigation finds the accusation was baseless, and the accuser is in turn charged with false reporting, and the newspaper reports that, too. The newspaper was acting in good faith, using material on the public record, and it should have some protection against charges by the cop that he was defamed, right?

But that’s exactly the situation in Terre Haute, involving a sheriff’s deputy named Jeff Maynard, and the jury didn’t see it that way:

The jury found in Maynard’s favor and awarded him $500,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.

[. . .]

In the lawsuit, Maynard contended that the Tribune-Star published two articles in March and April of 2004 containing allegations against him that “were false and defamatory.”

A Clay City woman had made allegations of misconduct following a Feb. 28, 2004, traffic stop, according to the two news stories.

As a result, then-Clay County Sheriff Rob Carter asked Indiana State Police to investigate the allegations.

The Tribune-Star published a third article on June 9, 2004 — not cited in the lawsuit — stating that Maynard had been cleared of wrongdoing, and the Clay City woman who made the allegations had been charged with false reporting, a class-B misdemeanor. The false-reporting charge was later dismissed as part of a plea agreement that included other unrelated charges.

I’ve written against the federal shield law now being considered by Congress (passed the House, awaiting Senate action) because I think all citizens should have the same rights under the First Amendment, and these days, it’s getting harder and harder to tell who is a “journalist” and who is not. But the Indiana free speech-public interest law does apply equally to “all persons” acting on something of public interest. The law was intended to prevent using accusations of libel and defamation to frustrate a robust discussion of public issues. Maybe this jury’s members feel good about punishing the evil press, but the discussions that will now be stifled might have contained information they would have found useful as citizens.

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3 Responses to “Free speech, public interest”

  1. Harl Delos Says:

    Leo, your hotlink to “the jury” actually points to the same URL as the hotlink for Indiana Code 34-7-7. It looks like you quoted from the Terre Haute News:
    http://www.tribstar.com/news/local_story_206233007.html

    I can’t help but think that the newspaper will prevail upon appeal.

    The first amendment doesn’t say anything about “journalists”. I have to agree that we all should have the same rights, and not by leveling down but by leveling up. Freedom of the press used to belong only to those who could afford a multi-million dollar Goss Suburban, and that was not good….

    There’s a big fuss going on right now, with some Republicans complaining that the traditional media are ignoring the tabloid story about Edwards being caught leaving a hotel at 1:30 AM, where a woman with a baby were staying. The traditional media also ignored the story, though, about Laura shredding Dubya with her fingernails, which appeared in the same tabloid.

    If I was going to have an assignation with a woman in some hotel, I would hope that she’d have the sense to find someone to watch the baby. Three’s a crowd.

  2. Leo Morris Says:

    Link fixed. Thanks.

  3. SPP Says:

    You can’t build a strong corporation with a lot of committees and a board that has to be consulted every turn. You have to be able to make decisions on your own.KeithRupertMurdochKeith Rupert Murdoch, media mogul, 1931-


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