Truth wins: how one paper defended a libel claim


Carroll newspaper’s co-owner Doug Burns and reporter Jared Strong tells the story of how they defended a libel suit against the news organization and Strong. They spoke at the Greenlee School of Journalism and Mass Communications on Wednesday. The speech is a segment of the 2019 First Amendment Days celebrations. 

Caitlin Yamada

Doug Burns, a co-owner of the Daily Times Herald in Carroll, Iowa, and Jared Strong, a reporter, spoke at 12:10 p.m. Wednesday in 169 Hamilton Hall about their experiences defending a libel lawsuit.

Strong graduated Iowa State in 2005 and has been with the Carroll newspaper for 9 years doing investigating reporting. One day in 2017, one of Strong’s sources called him with a tip.

“The first thing he said to me was ‘Jared I know how you like the sex stuff,’” Strong said.

Strong was told a teenager had defaced a car of a different teenager with a swastika because of a love triangle between teenagers and police officer, Jake Smith.

After looking up the court case on the criminal incident, Strong called the chief of police, Brad Burke, to inform him of the situation and give him a heads up. The police chief turned around and called Burns.

“He called and said, ‘look, societies changing, I don’t know that we can be so judgmental,’” Burns said. “I said ‘look, there’s only one question I have for you, is one of your police officers having a sexual relationship with a teenager.’”

The age of consent in Iowa is 16 as long as the older individual is not an authoritarian figure such as member of the clergy, teacher, coach or employer.

“For some reason police officers are not in that category,” Burns said.

The police chief went on to threaten the paper and said they could pull any of the employees over at any time.

“If he is going to use that kind of attack on me, what about somebody who’s at the margins,” Burns said. “I ended the conversation by saying I fully trusted our reporter and that we were going to pursue the story.”

Strong was going on a week long vacation the next week and wasn’t going to start looking into the situation until returning but after the paper received the call Strong immediately started working.

Strong submitted a request to obtain emails. He included a variety of different terms related to the case such as sex or affair and the names of the people involved.

The city manager caught wind of what was going on and ordered an investigation into the relationship. They found the police chief had known for months and was looking the other way.

On the way to a vacation, Strong found photos of the officer and the young girl and other girls on his Facebook feed. He continued the investigation through his vacation and submitted more records requests.

Strong also found the officer had been fired from his previous job of only a year and a half. Through documents from the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy and City Council meeting recordings, he found the reason.

When patrolling one night, the officer had seen a car illegally parked by a girl he knew. He sent a message to the 16-year-old girl on Facebook about the incident.

“His first message was ‘illegally parked, tisk, tisk, tisk,’” Strong said.

The parent complained about it and he was eventually fired. There were also other lawsuits connected to the removal.

Through this investigation Strong found the officer was also divorced. When contacted by Strong the ex-wife said the officer was a “pedophile” and had left her for the high school girl he was interacting with.

Strong believes the only reason the story came together was because of people’s willingness to talk.

He was able to talk to not only the ex-wife but the students involved, the mother of the girl whose car was defaced and finally everything came together.

When the Carroll girl was 16 she thought someone had broken into her car in the Walmart parking lot. Smith responded to the call and she said “you’re hot.”

Strong said they started texting immediately. Smith admitted later it was flirtatious texting.

Several months after, their relationship starts when they have sex when she was 17. She later moves in with him for a couple months before he cheated on her with a 19-year-old girl.

“Through all these interviews, through all these public documents, I am able to piece this together,” Strong said.

Strong got the phone number of the officer from the teenager and asked to meet and talk. Strong’s coworker drove him to a park for the 40-minute meeting in which Smith tried to explain his way out of the situation.

“Part of me questioned a little bit of my reporting,” Strong said. “So I tell him I need to look into what you are telling me and I’ll let you know what the status of the story is going to be.”

The next Monday Smith was forced to resign and Strong quickly finished the story to publish it the next day.


Strong said the biggest reason to publish the story even after Smith had resigned was because he would be an officer somewhere else now.

The police chief in Aldora was going to hire him after receiving a glowing recommendation from the Carroll police chief, but then members of the community found the story and protested.

The day after the story was published, Burns got an email from the police officer’s lawyer and they were sued for libel.

“I remember you coming out with the documents and I think he said ‘well it finally happened,’” Strong said. “If you’re in newspapers long enough, plenty of people threaten to sue you and you don’t ever expect it to happen.”

The reason they were being sued for libel was their quoting of a source saying he was a pedophile.

Around 8 or 9 months and $200,000 in legal fees later, the judge dismissed it, ruling the usage of the world pedophile was the ex-wife’s opinion and the paper was not presenting it as fact.

Strong said they had the best media attorneys they could assisting and were prepared well.

At one point during the proceedings they were given the opportunity to settle for $50,000 but Burns felt he would be doing an injustice to the community if he accepted it.

“If I can’t stand up for 16 and 17-year-old girls who are the victims … than why am I in the business,” Burns said.

Doing this put them at risk for a hammer clause in their libel insurance. If a person turns down a settlement for a certain amount and the judgement is higher, they will only cover the amount of the settlement.

Berns said the situation restored his faith in the court system and in the First Amendment.

“We look at this as a victory for the First Amendment, as a victory for the newspaper industry and a victory for young women,” Burns said. “We think we did our job but it was tough.”