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Press freedom advocates troubled by suit against Iowa paper

The former administrator for Iowa's third-largest city is suing the area's biggest newspaper, claiming that its coverage was unfair and cost him his job, in a case that has alarmed advocates for press freedom.

Posted: Sep 19, 2019 1:10 PM
Updated: Sep 19, 2019 2:56 PM

DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) — The former administrator for Iowa's third-largest city is suing the area's biggest newspaper, claiming that its coverage was unfair and cost him his job, in a case that has alarmed advocates for press freedom.

Former Davenport city administrator Craig Malin's lawsuit against the Quad-City Times is set to go to trial on Monday. He argues that the paper published false news and opinion pieces about his official actions, which forced him out after 14 years with the city.

The trial will not be a traditional libel case because a judge has ruled that Malin, as a public official, did not meet the high bar for proving the newspaper had defamed him. Instead, the case will be about whether the paper improperly interfered with Malin's employment contract, a claim that has a different standard of proof and is usually used in business disputes.

The newspaper's reporting on Davenport's handling of financial negotiations in 2015 for a new casino prompted the mayor to call for the termination of Malin, who left days later after negotiating a severance agreement. The newspaper has defended its coverage as accurate watchdog journalism and opinion protected by the First Amendment.

Press freedom experts say the case is troubling because courts have generally not allowed public officials to bring such claims to bypass the media's constitutional protections.

"It could have a significant chilling effect on the media if they can be sued for their news gathering activity when the reporting happens to lead to results like this," said attorney Sarah Matthews, of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The trial comes against a backdrop of declining local news coverage and attacks on the media by President Donald Trump. A judge has barred Malin's lawyers from using the term "fake news" to incite jurors.

Malin, now the city manager in Seaside, California, said his lawsuit is "anything but an attack on journalism." He said the evidence will show that the newspaper's opinion page editor, news columnist and city reporter created a false narrative to push for his firing.

"We rely on newspapers to tell the truth. That's all I'm asking for," said Malin, who claims he has lost job opportunities and been forced to live far from his Iowa-based family.

Malin claims the "personal attacks" were the culmination of a yearlong campaign that began after his decision to start Davenport Today, a city-funded news site that employed two former Quad-City Times reporters. The newspaper's editorials blasted the city-backed site as taxpayer-funded propaganda. The city abandoned it after Malin's departure.

Ian Russell, a lawyer for the newspaper and its parent company, Lee Enterprises, said the staff didn't target Malin but worked in a professional manner to inform the public about how city tax dollars were spent. He said Malin's claims stem from "dissatisfaction with coverage of his actions and frustration over his unsuccessful attempts to influence his portrayal in that coverage."

Judge Henry Latham is expected to rule before trial on whether the newspaper can use a First Amendment defense. That would require Malin to prove "actual malice" — that the newspaper knowingly published false information. Malin's lawyers argue that they shouldn't have to prove malice and that the paper should be barred from discussing its constitutional protections.

The dispute dates to 2015, when the newspaper reported that aldermen contended they had unwittingly voted to require the city to pay for grading work for a new casino. They told the paper they thought they were only approving the costs of extending a road, not also to grade the lot on which the casino would sit.

The mayor at the time, Bill Gluba, called for the council to remove Malin and the city attorney, saying they had overstepped their authority during negotiations. Malin said he and the city attorney had a misunderstanding about whether grading costs were included in the final agreement, which he called a good overall deal.

After initial stories by reporter Brian Wellner, columnist Barb Ickes criticized Malin for increasing costs to taxpayers and refusing to give straight answers. Editorials urged aldermen to investigate and hold Malin accountable or face a backlash from voters. The council and Malin negotiated a severance package in which Malin received a payout and agreed not to sue.

The city later paid grading costs of $1 million. Still, Malin claims the newspaper's publications falsely implied that he misled or failed to inform aldermen, causing him to lose support.

"They were targeting Craig Malin and their audience was the city council," said Malin attorney Richard Pundt, who will argue that the conduct was outrageous and seek punitive damages.

Wellner, who was laid off in 2017, has defended his scoop as well-researched, testifying in a deposition that he interviewed aldermen, Malin and others over many days "to get at the bottom of the issue."

After his requests for corrections were denied, Malin filed suit in 2017. Judge Nancy Tabor dismissed Malin's defamation claim, saying he failed to prove any reputational harm. But she allowed his contract claim to proceed and the Iowa Supreme Court declined to hear the newspaper's appeal before trial.

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