Newspaper struggles with legal fees after winning libel case against ex-cop

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CARROLL, Iowa -- A small town newspaper in Iowa found itself in some serious financial hardship after defending their investigative report that put a police officer under scrutiny.

Back in July of 2017, the Carroll Times Herald published an article about police officer Jacob Smith and his relationships with teenage girls. Smith, who is no longer with the police department, filed a libel lawsuit.

The paper won but was stuck with legal fees, leaving its future in limbo, according to WHO.

Carroll Times Herald reporter Jared Strong got a tip about the officer and started to investigate. Strong reported that Smith was in a relationship with multiple high school-aged girls in Carroll and had been fired at his previous police job in part for another relationship with a 16-year-old.

Smith did not commit a crime -- 16 is the age of consent in Iowa -- but he did violate the Carroll police department's standard of conduct. The reporter's inquiries led to Smith's resignation and the lawsuit.

“While I was confident we had the facts and stood by our story, and was prepared to continue the fight as we did, it is still an incredibly nerve-wracking process,” Douglas Burns, the co-owner of the Carroll Times Herald, said.

For the better part of a year, Burns spent his time in depositions and defending his newspaper's story on the now former Carroll cop.

“As you’re covering city council meetings, or working with advertisers, or doing anything else a community newspaper has to do, you always have this hanging over you,” Burns said.

Though the family-owned paper won the case, their libel insurance didn't cover all of the legal expenses. Their decision to run the controversial article also cost the paper some subscribers and advertisers.

“It was affecting our ability to serve the public,” Burns said. “To be able to continue to tackle these really important stories, to be able to continue to fund investigative journalism so that our area of Iowa doesn't turn into a news desert, where all we can publish is a church bulletin style of paper.”

Burns decided Wednesday night to start a GoFundMe. He is asking for $140,000 dollars to make sure the paper his grandfather and uncle once ran continues to stay alive.

Less than 24 hours later, he had already raised more than $45,000.

“I’m humbled that people from not only Iowa but across the United States have stepped up and said this brand of journalism -- and this type of journalism -- continues in rural areas, and they have our back on it,” Burns said.

Both Burns and Strong won a “Friend of the First Amendment” award for their article on the ex-cop from the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

Twenty-nine states have anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) statutes that are designed to provide an early dismissal of these meritless lawsuits against people exercising their first amendment rights. Usually these statutes also allow defendants to collect attorney fees from the plaintiff. However, Iowa is not one of them.

Burns said if he raises more than $140,000 he will use the money to start a non-profit to support good investigative and accountable journalism in rural Western Iowa.

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