Jones v. Palmer Communications, Inc.

Citation440 N.W.2d 884
Decision Date17 May 1989
Docket NumberNo. 88-371,88-371
Parties16 Media L. Rep. 2137 Anthony S. JONES, Appellee, v. PALMER COMMUNICATIONS, INCORPORATED, Steve Oswalt and Scott Pope, Appellants, City of Des Moines, Iowa, Robert V. Armstrong, Individually and in his Official Capacity as Chief of the Des Moines Fire Department, Defendants.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa

Kevin M. Reynolds of Whitfield, Musgrave & Eddy, and Michael A. Giudicessi, Des Moines, for appellants.

Charles E. Gribble of Sayre & Gribble, P.C., Des Moines, for appellee.



Anthony S. Jones filed a lawsuit alleging libel and false light invasion of privacy stemming from a news telecast concerning his termination from employment as a Des Moines firefighter. The trial court denied a motion for summary judgment filed by the media defendants: Palmer Communications, Inc., Steve Oswalt and Scott Pope (hereinafter referred to as Palmer). We granted Palmer's application for interlocutory appeal. This appeal does not involve claims filed by Jones against the nonmedia defendants, Des Moines Fire Chief Robert V. Armstrong and the City of Des Moines.

In this appeal we have the difficult task of defining the conflicting interests between the constitutional protection afforded the free press and the protection of individuals from defamation. In reaching a decision we must reconcile the general law of defamation with the freedoms guaranteed by the first amendment of the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Iowa Constitution.

I. Standards for Summary Judgment.

In Behr v. Meredith Corp., 414 N.W.2d 339, 341 (Iowa 1987), we articulated the well-established standards for determining whether summary judgment is appropriate in a defamation or invasion of privacy case.

Summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine issue of fact and the moving party is entitled to the judgment as a matter of law. The burden of showing the nonexistence of a material fact is upon the moving party. While an adverse party generally cannot rest upon his pleadings when the moving party has supported his motion, summary judgment is still not proper if reasonable minds could draw different inferences and conclusions from the undisputed facts. In this respect, summary judgment is functionally akin to a directed verdict; every legitimate inference that reasonably can be deduced from the evidence should be afforded the nonmoving party, and a fact question is generated if reasonable minds can differ on how the issue should be resolved.

Behr, 414 N.W.2d at 341; see also Iowa R.Civ.P. 237(c).

In the context of a defamation action, "[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202, 211 (1986). Further, "summary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is 'genuine,' that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Id., 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. at 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d at 211-12. In deciding this appeal, "we must determine whether any facts have been presented over which a reasonable difference of opinion could exist that would affect the outcome of the case." Behr, 414 N.W.2d at 341.

Summary judgment is afforded a unique role in defamation cases. Judges have a responsibility to determine whether "allowing a case to go to a jury would, in the totality of the circumstances, endanger first amendment freedoms." See Ollman v. Evans, 750 F.2d 970, 1006 (D.C.Cir.1984) (en banc) (Bork, Wilkey, Ginsburg & MacKinnon, JJ., concurring), cert. denied, 471 U.S. 1127, 105 S.Ct. 2662, 86 L.Ed.2d 278 (1985).

II. Summary of the Record.

A summary of this record provides the following information. Jones was hired by the City of Des Moines as a fire fighter on December 17, 1984, under the provisions of a consent decree issued by the United States District Court concerning the hiring of minorities. This decree was the result of a widely-publicized, class-action lawsuit alleging that discriminatory practices had prevented qualified minority applicants from obtaining employment with the Des Moines Fire Department. Jones was dismissed on July 9, 1986, for failure to pass a written Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) examination. Jones failed the EMT test on six different occasions and had received tutoring in an effort to pass the examination. At the time of Jones' discharge, all newly-hired fire fighters in Des Moines were required to become EMT qualified.

News reporters employed by Palmer Communications, Inc., learned that a black fire fighter had been dismissed by the Des Moines Fire Department. In light of the recent federal action for discrimination, the reporters felt that Jones' dismissal was newsworthy. In researching this story, an interview was conducted with Des Moines Fire Chief Robert V. Armstrong.

During the interview, Armstrong stated that Jones had a reading problem which led to his inability to pass the EMT examination. Armstrong said that Jones was tested for reading comprehension at Drake University and was found to read at a third-grade level. Armstrong went on to say that Jones had received special tutoring at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) at taxpayer expense. On August 6, 1986, the news story concerning Jones' termination was broadcast at 6:00 p.m. on a local television station owned by Palmer Communications, Inc. Prior to the broadcast, news reporter Steve Oswalt contacted Jones' lawyer, who declined to respond. The media defendants allege that Oswalt made unsuccessful attempts to contact Jones personally. Jones disputes this allegation. At this time, the record does not include a tape or transcript of the broadcast in question.

III. Issues.

This appeal raises a variety of issues. We first consider four complete defenses raised by Palmer in its motion for summary judgment. Palmer raises the complete defenses of substantial truth, the protection provided to a statement of opinion, the qualified privilege of communication by a public official, and a qualified privilege of neutral reporting.

In the alternative, Palmer argues it is entitled to a summary judgment because Jones must show "actual malice" on the part of Palmer. Palmer offers four arguments to support its claim that Jones must show actual malice. Palmer asserts that Jones must show actual malice to prevail on the false light invasion of privacy claim. Palmer also argues that Jones was a public official, a public figure, and was entangled in issues of public concern.

Further, Palmer argues that Jones must demonstrate actual malice in order to receive punitive damages. In making this claim, Palmer challenges Iowa Code sections 659.2 and 659.3 as unconstitutional. Finally, Palmer contends that it is entitled to a summary judgment even if Jones must only prove negligence.

IV. Development of Defamation Law.

In order to fully discuss the issues raised in this appeal, it will be necessary to review the development of defamation law. Initially, defamation law consisted primarily of a complex set of common-law rules developed by the state courts. See Note, Iowa Libel Law and the First Amendment: Defamation Displaced, 62 Iowa L.Rev. 1067, 1068 (1977). The Supreme Court viewed defamation law as entirely outside the reach of the first amendment. See Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 571-72, 62 S.Ct. 766, 769, 86 L.Ed. 1031, 1035 (1942) (dicta). The Supreme Court first applied the first amendment to defamation law in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964).

New York Times afforded first amendment protection to defamation concerning the official conduct of a public official. Even if the defamatory statements were false, the plaintiff was required to show that the statements were made with "actual malice," which is defined as knowledge of the falsity or reckless disregard of possible falsity. Id. at 279-80, 84 S.Ct. at 726, 11 L.Ed.2d at 706. The holding of New York Times was limited to speech about public officials, and extended protection even to negligently false speech about public officials. This protection of negligent speech was granted because the Court feared that the common-law standard of strict liability would have a chilling effect on constitutionally valuable speech. Id. at 277-80, 84 S.Ct. at 723-25, 11 L.Ed.2d at 705-07. The avowed purpose of New York Times is to insulate from liability those who undertake to comment on the conduct of public officials in the discharge of their official duties unless actual malice is shown. McCarney v. Des Moines Register & Tribune, 239 N.W.2d 152, 156 (Iowa 1976).

In the wake of New York Times, a plurality of the Court extended actual malice protection to "all discussion and communication involving matters of public or general concern, without regard to whether the persons involved are famous or anonymous." Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc., 403 U.S. 29, 49, 91 S.Ct. 1811, 1820, 29 L.Ed.2d 296, 315 (1971) (plurality).

The Rosenbloom standards were rejected in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974). See generally Vinson v. Linn-Mar Community School Dist., 360 N.W.2d 108, 117 (Iowa 1984) (discussing Gertz ). Gertz allowed for some reduction of constitutional safeguards by providing for two levels of protection. Speech concerning public officials and public figures was still protected by the actual malice requirement. For private plaintiffs, the states were free to interpret state law and apply any level of protection for the defendant below strict liability. Gertz, 418 U.S. at 346-47, 94 S.Ct. at 3010, 41 L.Ed.2d at 809. Gertz also provided that the actual malice standard applied to any award...

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