As It Happens

Iowa paper successfully fights libel suit by ex-police officer — but struggles to cover costs

The Carroll Times Herald newspaper successfully fought off a libel lawsuit brought by a former police officer who they exposed for having inappropriate relationships with teenage girls. Doug Burns, the paper's co-owner and vice-president of news, has started a Go Fund Me to help cover the newspaper's legal expenses.

Officer sued the Carroll Times Herald for reporting on his relationships with teenagers

Doug Burns is the co-owner and vice-president of news for the Carroll Times Herald. (Carroll Times Herald)
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Transcript

Usually, when a newspaper is hit with a libel lawsuit, it either wins or loses. But, in a sense, the Carroll Times Herald has done both.

In 2017, the newspaper published a story alleging that Carroll, Iowa, police officer Jacob Smith was having legal but inappropriate relationships with teenage girls — one of whom he met while on duty.

The age of consent in Iowa is 16 and Smith is not accused of any crimes. But the officer resigned from the police force during the newspaper's investigation, and filed the libel lawsuit after the story was published. 

The court ruled in the Times Herald's favour, but the newspaper is still in trouble because it pursued the story. 

Doug Burns, the paper's co-owner and vice-president of news, has started a Go Fund Me to help cover the newspaper's legal expenses.

Burns spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the lawsuit and the future of the newspaper. Here is part of their conversation.

Doug, what challenges is your newspaper now facing after going through this libel lawsuit?

We initially vetted this story very thoroughly and we're confident with our reporting in it. And then, after we published it, the former police officer filed a lawsuit.

We were engaged in it for the better part of a year, so there were expenses associated with that. We did have libel insurance, which covered a good part of it. But there were other legal expenses.

And then, you know, in this era of fake news, and all of the other anti-media tropes that [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump has developed, we started to get pushback on subscriptions. We've had some advertising lost.

It's tied back to kind of some of the hostility that was generated toward us for publishing what I thought was, and what we thought was, just good public interest, accountability journalism.

You won the suit. You're not suffering all these things because you lost.

No, we didn't have the facts wrong. But before we ran the story, the police chief here tried to suggest to me that we shouldn't be running the story — that we shouldn't be engaging in kind of a moral judgment on this police officer.

You know, had we not pursued it doggedly, it's likely that the officer would still be employed because it was our reporting that revealed the information on his behaviour.

And because we live in a rural area that, at times, can be tribal and that would probably prefer that some information not be published, there definitely is a — we have still a strong circulation and a lot of supporters, don't get me wrong, and a lot of good advertisers — but there was some push back.

It did play into an us versus them kind of scenario that has continued to dog us.

But the story that you told, the story you investigated, was you'd found out that there was a local police officer who appeared to be having relationships with teenage women and girls. Is that right?

A relationship with a teenage girl in our community. And then, as we researched it, there was some online interaction with another female in eastern Iowa and we were able to obtain the records from council meetings in that community — Sumner, Iowa — that definitely established a pattern of interest.

We plan to continue to dedicate resources to do just these type of stories. This isn't the last of our efforts to hold public officials accountable in a variety ways.- Doug Burns

We should point out that there's nothing illegal in this, right?

No. And our story was very clear. We pointed that out that the age of consent is 16. We were very clear that he didn't do anything illegal.

So why did you think it was in the public interest?

Just in talking to the fathers and mothers of people of that age in the community, you know, having an officer who goes out on a police call and then begins to interact with a teenage girl, we just thought that that behaviour, that kind of activity, was worth reporting.

And he, in fact, resigned his position. So I think the fact that he parted ways with the police department vindicated our decision that this is definitely in the public interest.

Most people in the public would want to know that a police officer who is sworn to protect them is engaging in sexual activity with a teenage girl — something that he admitted in a deposition that I sat through.

He did admit to this relationship, right? 

Correct.

Had the facts been established through him and through your reporting that he had had this relationship?

The facts were established and we reported the story. It was accurate and in judge's motion on summary judgment, the judge deemed ... our story to be accurate.

Given you have all these costs now associated with this suit, what does that mean for a smalltown newspaper like yourself?

What I want to be clear about is I think we'd still be able — if no money had come in from Go Fund Me — we would still be able to operate a paper. But I would have really had to look at adjusting the mission.

We have a really talented reporter, Jared Strong, and if you don't have a reporter with the kind of skill set and experience to tackle these kind of stories, then it's really perilous for a newspaper to do it. So a lot of papers, you know, they can't afford to have a investigative enterprise reporter like we have in Jared.

And he was the one who broke this story?

He was the one who broke the story. And so we want to be clear that this Go Fund Me [and] the money I'm seeking allows us to continue this sort of aggressive, accountability, public interest, government watchdog journalism at the level I think all communities should expect — and at the level we've provided it through three generations of our families' ownership of the paper.

So will you continue to do investigative journalism, or will you change your mission?

You have to really make an investment, both in talent and time, as you know very well, to even consider going after an investigative story like this. And we plan to continue to dedicate resources to do just these type of stories. This isn't the last of our efforts to hold public officials accountable in a variety ways.


Written by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin and John McGill. Interview produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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