A small-town Iowa newspaper, threatened with financial ruin after winning an expensive libel lawsuit, has raised almost $100,000 after its owner took the unusual step of fundraising with a GoFundMe campaign.
“It’s heartening and it shows that there’s a lot of support out there,” said Douglas W. Burns the co-owner and editor of the Carroll Times Herald, in an interview on the Law&Crime Network program Brian Ross Investigates.
The lawsuit, brought by a former Carroll police officer, was ultimately dismissed by a judge who ruled the story was true and “the facts undisputed.” The story in question involved a relationship the police officer had with a 16-year-old girl. You can read the lawsuit in the embed below.
Burns said he was glad to have done the story, even with the legal costs of almost $140,000.
“If you can’t stand up for a vulnerable girl, then I don’t think you have any business standing near a printing press, so this is the proverbial hill you’re willing to die on,” Burns said.
“I don’t think I could have lived with myself if we hadn’t pursued the story. It was the right thing to do,” he added.
Burns said even though the girl was of legal age of consent in Iowa, “we thought it was the kind of involvement and activity by a police officer that the community should know about… most parents would find it very concerning.”
Reporter Jared Strong, hired from the Des Moines Register, spent two months digging through personnel records and obtaining inappropriate private Facebook messages that the officer had sent to the 16-year-old girl.
Burns said he knew that if he lost the libel lawsuit it would have not only ended his career, but also forced him to sell the paper, which was founded by his grandfather in 1929. But Burns refused an offer to retract the true story and settle the case.
“We felt that if we would surrender to this, it would have a chilling effect, not just on other media, but particularly on other small media in Iowa,” Burns explained.
The GoFundMe campaign garnered widespread coverage of the lawsuit on various news platforms, such as The Washington Post, and the Des Moines Register, which is part of USA Today Network. Iowa’s pulitzer-prize winning metropolitan newspaper, The Gazette published an editorial featuring the Carroll Herald’s fundraising page, arguing that the case shows Iowa’s need for anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) protections, which would allow for early dismissal of lawsuits filed for the purpose of intimidating people exercising their First Amendment rights.
Yet the increased spotlight on the lawsuit has led Burns to fear that the paper will be subjected to further retaliation.
“This is why local ownership matters because this is my community,” Burns said. “I care deeply about this town and I don’t want this kind of behavior occurring here.”
[Image via GoFundMe screengrab]