It feels like we write this a lot here at FindLaw, but it is impossible to understate the importance of our First Amendment protections. The Freedom of the Press allows us to critically examine our government to ensure that it is responding effectively to our needs. To be able to do this without fear of reprisal trumps frustrations with media we disagree with.
But if you’re a government employee, what do you do when the disinfecting sunlight cast by an inquisitive press turns toward you? Well, if you’re former Davenport, Iowa, City Administrator Craig Malin, you try to find a way around the First Amendment to still take revenge on that free press. And this has made some free press advocates nervous about a potential chilling effect on investigating government business.
In a trial that began earlier this week, Malin alleges that the Quad-City Times newspaper’s coverage of his handling of a new casino deal cost him his job.
The details center around Malin’s alleged misleading of the city council in approving a more expensive project. Additionally, Malin attempted to start a city-funded news website that was criticized by the QC Times as propaganda.
His lawsuit argues that the newspaper published “objectively and knowingly false” articles related to the casino deal and “bluntly, persistently, and nonsensically” opposed his city-run news site. He argues that the paper intentionally damaged his reputation to the point that the mayor and city council lost confidence in him and he had to negotiate his exit. The suit seeks damages for loss of reputation, loss of income, and emotional distress.
One would be correct in thinking that this is an open-and-shut First Amendment issue, since the paper did not maliciously spread misinformation about him. However, this case is not moving forward as a traditional libel case.
While Iowa District Court Judge Nancy Tabor dismissed the libel and defamation claims, she allowed Malin’s claims that the paper interfered with his employment contract to stand. She wrote that there are sufficient grounds to explore whether the paper specifically intended the results of their reporting to be Malin’s firing or whether that outcome was just “a necessary consequence of their complaints and criticism.”
The implications of this case have the potential to reach far beyond Davenport. Being able to go around the First Amendment to take action against news reporting could present a new avenue for vengeful politicians and business leaders eager to escape scrutiny.