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Opening Arguments

Got a lawyer

The Terre Haute Tribune-Star has dropped its appeal of a $1.5 million jury award to Clay County sheriff's deputy Jeff Maynard, who contended that two stories about alleged misconduct defamed him. Nobody at the newspaper is talking, so the natural speculation is that a settlement might have been reached among the interested parties for something less than the awarded amount, which was the largest libel award against a news media defendant in Indiana's history. If this is so, the newspaper is abdicating its responsibility, just trying to get out with as little loss as possible instead of fighting a fight that could be and needs to be won:

Maynard in 2004 sued the Tribune-Star for publishing two articles about sworn allegations of misconduct made by a driver after a traffic stop in February of that year. Those allegations turned out to be false. Maynard said the articles also contained defamatory statements.

There are some ambiguous situations in which it is unclear whether newspapers have some protection against libel even if what they print is wrong. This isn't one of them. Nothing is taken more seriously by the press than its duty to report allegations of wrongdoing by public officials. If the newspaper's owners are paying off on this one, they're going to make it harder for news outlets throughout Indiana to report on public officials.

And this should worry more people than just those in the "professional" press. News organizations have attorneys and insurance with which to handle libel cases. Individual bloggers usually don't. If bloggers indeed get more into the reporting business and start shouldering some of the watchdog-of-government burden, they should be prepared for intimidation, legal and otherwise, from people who don't want certain things printed.