SIOUX CITY -- A verdict in a Woodbury County District Court slander case could have a cooling effect on the content of campaign ads, state political observers said Monday.
"There will continue to be really nasty, negative ads," said Joe Shannahan, a former spokesman for Gov. Tom Vilsack. "But I'm hoping this case is a warning to everyone to be careful with the charges you throw out."
A jury on Friday awarded state Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, $231,000 in damages after deciding that a 2010 campaign ad amounted to defamation. The television spot was created by the state Democratic Party and Bertrand's opponent in the race, Rick Mullin.
The ad claimed Bertrand "put profits ahead of children's health" when he was a sales agent for a drug company. Bertrand filed suit in October 2010.
Jeana Goosmann, a Sioux City attorney who represented Bertrand, said the Democratic Party knew the ad statements about Bertrand and his business were false but proceeded anyway.
"They can even make false statements regarding (a candidate's) policies. But to attack them personally or to attack their business, those statements must be truthful," she said.
The outcome could have national implications because the jury held a political party liable for false personal attacks against a candidate, and that sets a legal precedence, she said.
"The First Amendment does not give unlimited freedom to publish personal lies against anyone, whether or not you are a public figure," Goosmann said.
Tim Albrecht, a Republican Party strategist for 15 years, said the court decision has "the potential to rock the foundation of political campaigns." He said every mailer, radio ad and television spot in Iowa will be scrutinized more.
"Now you are going to have to bring in a lot more eyes and have a lot more sophisticated examination of everything that moves forward," he said.
Gov. Terry Branstad on Monday said the decision will hopefully cause candidates to tone down rhetoric.
"I think it's encouraging," he said during his weekly press conference, "and maybe it will make people think twice about making outlandish statements that amount to libel or slander."
Mullin and the Iowa Democratic Party have 30 days to appeal the verdict.
University of Iowa Political Science Associate Professor Timothy Hagle on Friday said an appeal would probably hinge on whether Mullin knew the advertisement contained false information and didn't check facts properly.
One part of the 2010 ad said that "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 the marketing of dangerous drugs to children."
Bertrand, a former regional manager for biotech company Takeda North America, the U.S. unit of Japan's Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., said in his lawsuit that he has never owned a drug company, nor did he ever sell the pediatric drug alluded to in the ad.