DES MOINES — State Sen. Rick Bertrand was left shaking his head Friday at what he said was the failure of the Iowa Supreme Court to clean up negative campaigning.
“They validated the idea that you can say anything, you can make up anything without having consequences,” Bertand said via telephone a few hours after the Iowa Supreme Court reversed and tossed out his defamation suit against a 2010 election opponent and the Iowa Democratic Party involving a campaign ad.
The ad, which Bertrand said implied he sold deadly drugs to children when he worked for a pharmaceutical company, did not rise to the level of “actual malice,” Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote in the unanimous opinion. Brent Appel and Edward Mansfield took no part in the decision.
“The result of this case is not to imply actual malice cannot exist within the rough and tumble Wild West approach to negative commercials that have seemingly become standard discourse in many political campaigns,” Cady wrote. “Protection from defamatory statements does exist and should exist, but the high standards established under the First Amendment to permit a free exchange of ideas within the same discourse must also be protected.”
The decision shows a public figure such as Bertrand has to meet a high bar to prove defamation, said Ryan Koopmans, an attorney with Nyemaster Goode in Des Moines and author of the legal blog “On Brief,” which covers appellate issues.
“The opinion demonstrates how difficult it is for politicians to prove that they were defamed by negative political ads. And that’s probably how it should be,” Koopmans wrote in an email. “The voters, not the courts, are best suited to judge political truth. Indeed, if political fact checkers have taught us anything, it’s that political truth is often in the eye of the political beholder.”
Scott Brennan, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, called the ruling a victory for free speech.
“We are gratified by the ruling of the Iowa Supreme Court, and we applaud their clear decision upholding the First Amendment’s protection of political speech,” he said in a prepared statement.
Bertrand blamed the Democrats for promoting negative campaigning by “hiding behind the First Amendment.”
He said the court “failed to take the lead and lead the nation in an effort to clean up politics” and expected a torrent of negative ads to come out in the waning days in the run-up to the June 3 primary elections.
“A lot of people were debating right now how to run their campaigns,” he said. “I think they were watching this.”
The court also vacated the monetary damages Bertrand was granted by lower courts. A jury initially awarded Bertrand $231,000 in damages. That amount was later reduced to $50,000 to be paid by both the Iowa Democratic Party and Bertrand’s 2010 opponent, Rick Mullin.
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