DES MOINES — The Iowa Supreme Court waded into the murky waters where political ads, defamation of character and the First Amendment mix in case involving a Republican state senator from Sioux City and his 2010 Democratic opponent.
“This is how you change the face of politics,” state Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, said standing just outside the courtroom doors immediately after his hearing in front a five-judge panel.
“I think Iowa has an opportunity, once again, to lead the nation,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for this court to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ that at some point, you can’t say just anything with the intention of malice behind it and get away with it.”
He successfully sued Rick Mullin and the Iowa Democratic Party over a 2010 campaign ad that claimed Bertrand “put profits ahead of children’s health.”
The claim was based on Bertrand’s former job as a regional manager for biotech company Takeda North America, the U.S. unit of Japan's Takeda Pharmaceutical Co.
A jury awarded Bertrand $231,000 in damages. District Judge Jeffrey Poulson later reduced that award to $50,000.
Mullin appealed the initial verdict, and Bertrand appealed the reduced award amount.
Juustice David Wiggins seemed skeptical there was a clear case of defamation, saying the ad could be interpreted as saying Takeda, not Bertrand himself or the businesses he currently runs, were the ones selling controversial medicine.
“It was pretty clear in the ad, to me at least,” he said.
Bertand’s attorney, Jeana Goosmann, agreed if the ad had said Takeda, “we may have had a different case.” But, she said, the ad didn’t say that.
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“The standard (for defamation) is high,” she said. “It has been met.”
Chief Justice Mark Cady asked Goosmann if the court would “suppress the First Amendment by affirming this.” She responded that holding up Bertrand’s award would “help clean up politics.”
Juustice Thomas Waterman suggested that if the court doesn’t hold up the award, “good people” would be turned off of politics for fear there was no recourse against those who would “sully” their names in the course of a political campaign.
Des Moines attorney Mark McCormick, who represented both Mullins and the Iowa Democratic Party, said the case was bigger than “just Iowa” and it represented the “combat of ideas” inherent in political speech.
“Actual malice is a very high threshold,” he said. “We’re talking about the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
The court will issue its decision at a later date.