Indiana Code 34-7-7 is intended to protect the free-speech rights of those commenting on "matters of public interest." Say someone accuses a cop of wrongdoing, and officials decide to investigate, and a newspaper reports the allegations and the investigation. The investigation finds the accusation was baseless, and the accuser is in turn charged with false reporting, and the newspaper reports that, too. The newspaper was acting in good faith, using material on the public record, and it should have some protection against charges by the cop that he was defamed, right?
But that's exactly the situation in Terre Haute, involving a sheriff's deputy named Jeff Maynard, and the jury didn't see it that way:
The jury found in Maynard's favor and awarded him $500,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.
[. . .]
In the lawsuit, Maynard contended that the Tribune-Star published two articles in March and April of 2004 containing allegations against him that “were false and defamatory.”
A Clay City woman had made allegations of misconduct following a Feb. 28, 2004, traffic stop, according to the two news stories.
As a result, then-Clay County Sheriff Rob Carter asked Indiana State Police to investigate the allegations.
The Tribune-Star published a third article on June 9, 2004 — not cited in the lawsuit — stating that Maynard had been cleared of wrongdoing, and the Clay City woman who made the allegations had been charged with false reporting, a class-B misdemeanor. The false-reporting charge was later dismissed as part of a plea agreement that included other unrelated charges.
I've written against the federal shield law now being considered by Congress (passed the House, awaiting Senate action) because I think all citizens should have the same rights under the First Amendment, and these days, it's getting harder and harder to tell who is a "journalist" and who is not. But the Indiana free speech-public interest law does apply equally to "all persons" acting on something of public interest. The law was intended to prevent using accusations of libel and defamation to frustrate a robust discussion of public issues. Maybe this jury's members feel good about punishing the evil press, but the discussions that will be stifled might have contained informatio