What does one do with a court ruling like this?

Today’s Iowa Supreme Court decision in Bertrand v. Mullins (Iowa May 16, 2014) deals with an interesting political libel case (and generally does so quite thoughtfully, and in a good deal of detail). You can read the opinion for more on the case, or check out this Iowa Press-Citizen article; but I have a different question.

The lawsuit was in large part about the potentially defamatory implications of an ad, which read:

Rick Bertrand said he would run a positive campaign but now he is falsely attacking Rick Mullin. Why?

Because Bertrand doesn’t want you to know he put his profits ahead of children’s health.

Bertrand was a sales agent for a big drug company that was rated the most unethical company in the world. The FDA singled out Bertrand’s company for marketing a dangerous sleep drug to children.

Rick Bertrand. Broken promises. A record of deceit.

Part of the alleged defamation was the supposed implication that Bertrand personally marketed the dangerous drug (rather than just working for a company in which another division marketed that drug). And in footnote 2, pp. 16-17, the court discussed the issue and how out-of-state cases had dealt with it, with the following conclusion (emphasis and extra paragraph break added):

[I]n the district court, Mullin argued that, at least in the First Amendment context, a defamation-by-implication plaintiff must prove the defendant subjectively endorsed or intended the implication in the publication….

The district court agreed with Mullin that the subjective-intent showing … is a required one. Bertrand did not raise a claim of error regarding this aspect of the ruling on appeal but only mentioned it in his reply brief in response to the issues raised by Mullin on cross-appeal. Similarly, Mullin did not heavily rely on this point in his cross-appeal.

We recognize defamation by implication is “an area of law ‘fraught with subtle complexities.’” In light of the absence of thorough briefing on the issue or the necessity that we decide it as a factual matter, we decline to address the subjective-intent requirement in this opinion. Thus, we only consider the implied claim that Bertrand personally sold Rozerem. As above, we decide the case solely on the actual malice ground and express no opinion regarding whether Mullin or any staff of the Iowa Democratic Party subjectively endorsed or intended the implication that Bertrand personally sold or marketed rozerem.

OK, makes sense — but then, later in the opinion, the court writes,

Yet, when defamation is implied, the evidence must affirmatively show the author subjectively endorsed or intended the inference. [P. 18.]

[T]here was no direct evidence that Mullin and the Iowa Democratic Party endorsed the defamatory implication after it was revealed. [P. 19.]

[N]o evidence supported a conclusion that Mullin or the Iowa Democratic Party subjectively intended the defamatory implication as opposed to the legitimate implication. [P. 25.]

Am I missing something, or are these textual passages inconsistent with the statement in the footnote? If so, how should lawyers and judges faced with this precedent interpret it? (Naturally, if I am indeed misunderstanding this, I would be happy to have my error corrected.)

One possible explanation is that the footnote was added late in the writing, because one of the judges didn’t want the court to decide the legal question, and perhaps the plan was to revise the text to make clear that the subjective intent requirement is merely being assumed — given the procedural history of the case. But that’s just speculation; all we have in the actual opinion is the text, which strikes me as internally inconsistent. In any case, I’d love to hear what others have to say about this.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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Eugene Volokh | May 16