Iowa court extends Net libel protections

This will be the second time in in This will be the second time in in less than four years that the parent company of Reader's Digest has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Photo Credit: Newsday, 2003 / Jim Peppler

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The Iowa Supreme Court has given protections against libel lawsuits to Internet publishers but declined to extend them to average citizens, a ruling that media lawyers called significant Monday.

Friday's ruling extends free-speech protections long enjoyed by newspapers and broadcasters to companies that distribute Internet content, such as book publishers, experts said. But the court declined to extend those rights to individual social media users, saying the victims of cyberbullying and online smear campaigns should be able to more easily sue for defamation.

University of Iowa journalism professor Lyombe Eko said the court "has given protection to people who are bullied on the Internet, the victims of smears or lies or accusations posted on Facebook and Twitter." People will be able to sue the attacker, but not the company that hosts the site where the statements are posted, he said.

Media lawyers said the decision modernized Iowa's libel law by extending free-speech protections to Internet publishers.

The case involved a 2008 memoir written by former Iowan Scott Weier that describes his relationship with God after a divorce. He paid Author Solutions Inc., a nontraditional publisher, to design a cover and print copies that he could distribute to bookstores and acquaintances. Author Solutions sold three copies on its website and one through Amazon.

Weier's ex-wife, Beth Weier, and her father filed a lawsuit against Scott Weier and Author Solutions over statements they considered false and defamatory.

A court ruled in 2010 that neither the author nor the publishing company qualified for free-speech protections given to traditional media. After an unusually long 18-month review, justices voted 5-2 to overturn that ruling, saying ASI is a media defendant and therefore dismissed the company from the lawsuit.

The definition of media goes beyond businesses that report news, the justices found.

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