DES MOINES, Iowa -- The Iowa Supreme Court Wednesday threw out a $100,000 libel award against a college newspaper because the story was 'substantially true.'
The court dismissed a libel judgment against The Iowa State Daily, which is published by Iowa State University in Ames, over a story it ran Jan. 27, 1982, concerning a sexual assault on a bartender at a local American Legion Hall.
The story reported that bartender Laurie Hovey had been raped on the night of Jan. 26, and Norman Holby had been charged with second-degree sexual abuse, assault, willful injury and robbery.
Hovey sued the paper claiming that the article defamed her by reporting that she had been raped. She said the information was incorrect because she was was forced to perform oral sex and not actually forced into intercourse, which would have constituted rape.
Hovey also claimed that the story was libelous because the suspect had not been charged with rape.
A Story County jury agreed with Hovey and awarded her $100,000. But the Supreme Court, in a 5-0 decision, ruled the case should have been dismissed.
In an opinion written by Justice Arthur McGivern, the court held the newspaper article was substantially true, providing the paper with a 'complete defense.'
'The difference between the truth and the reported truth was not material enough for the inaccuracy to be actionable,' McGivern wrote. 'For that reason we conclude the defendant has established its defense of truth as a matter of law.'
The justices, claiming Iowa law had not specifically addressed the issue of substantial truth versus absolute truth, said libel defendants need not establish the literal truth of their statements.
'It is sufficient to show that the charge or imputation is substantially true, or as it is often put, to justify the gist, the sting or substantial truth of the defamation,' the court said.
The paper's faculty advisor, Giles Fowler, said he was 'relieved.'
'There's been so damn much libel litigation recently, and much of it seemed to be rather frivolous. I felt that was the case here, and I was baffled by the results of the first trial,' Fowler said. 'I feel the Daily has been vindicated.'