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Paper wants judge to set aside libel verdict

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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A Terre Haute newspaper is asking the judge who presided over a libel trial against the paper to set aside the $1.5 million jury verdict. The Tribune-Star Publishing Company Inc., which produces the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, filed its 39-page brief to support a motion to correct errors Aug. 22 in Sullivan Circuit Court.

In July, a jury awarded Clay County Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Maynard $500,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages in his defamation suit against the newspaper, Jeff Maynard v. Tribune-Star Publishing Company Inc., No. 77C01-0407-CT-219. Maynard filed the suit in response to articles published in the Tribune-Star in 2004 regarding sworn allegations of misconduct by the officer after a traffic stop. The allegations were eventually found to be false, which the Tribune-Star also reported on; that story is not included in Maynard's defamation suit.

In its motion to correct errors, the Tribune-Star says there was not "clear and convincing evidence" the articles written about the allegations against Maynard were published with actual malice, and the articles "accurately and neutrally reported the allegations of police misconduct and the ensuing investigation."

Even if there was evidence of constitutional actual malice and other elements of defamation, the paper argues the jury's damage award was excessive and violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.

The paper claims its coverage of the allegations against Maynard is protected by the doctrine of neutral reportage, as applied in Indiana in Woods v. Evansville Press Co. Inc., 791 F.2d 480, 488 (7th Cir. 1986), which addressed the media's right to publish stories about ongoing investigations or allegations made about public officials or figures.

Affirmation of the verdict will have a chilling effect on citizens and newspapers to make or report allegations of misconduct of public officials or criminal investigations out of fear they may be subject to a defamation suit, the brief states.
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  2. Seventh Circuit Court Judge Diane Wood has stated in “The Rule of Law in Times of Stress” (2003), “that neither laws nor the procedures used to create or implement them should be secret; and . . . the laws must not be arbitrary.” According to the American Bar Association, Wood’s quote drives home this point: The rule of law also requires that people can expect predictable results from the legal system; this is what Judge Wood implies when she says that “the laws must not be arbitrary.” Predictable results mean that people who act in the same way can expect the law to treat them in the same way. If similar actions do not produce similar legal outcomes, people cannot use the law to guide their actions, and a “rule of law” does not exist.

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