by Sarah Squires
A lawsuit brought against the Winona Post by former Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Chair Stacey Mounce Arnold has been settled and will not proceed to a jury trial.
Arnold’s suit made claims against Winona Post Inc., former Winona Post Publisher John Edstrom, who passed away in June, current Winona Post Publisher Frances Edstrom, and former Winona Post News Editor Cynthya Porter. The lawsuit, filed in 2010, just before the November school board election, took issue with several articles and one editorial printed in the Winona Post, and claimed the articles negatively affected Mounce Arnold's reputation.
Edstrom said the decision to settle the litigation was not an easy one, and that it came after the assigned judge failed to dismiss the lawsuit. “It became clear to me in the last year that the judge assigned to our case did not understand the rights of the press under the First Amendment,” she said. Edstrom added that although she felt confident that the Winona Post would have prevailed at trial, attorney's fees, and expenses, to resolve the lawsuit in a trial could have potentially cost more than the agreed settlement amount of $25,000.
Winona Post attorney Mark Anfinson said the court system in this case did not properly apply First Amendment principles that should have protected the Post. “The court failed the First Amendment,” he said. Given that failure, Anfinson said, the Post was placed in an extremely difficult position, and faced a “Hobson’s Choice.” Since the same judge would have presided at trial, an improper damage award was not impossible. Such a “perverse verdict,” which Anfinson said is not uncommon in libel trials against the media, could have caused severe financial hardship for the Winona Post, since there was no insurance coverage for such a claim.
Frances Edstrom said, "The Winona Post and I have a responsibility to the community to continue publishing. And we also have a very important responsibility to our employees, independent contractors, advertisers, and vendors. I could not in good conscience jeopardize the financial viability of the Winona Post, which could have been a possibility if a judgement were to go against us in court. In the two years since the lawsuit was filed, the Winona Post has not only paid attorney fees, but also expended precious physical and emotional energy and time on the suit. I felt this could not continue if the Post is to remain the quality, award-winning newspaper it is."
Anfinson explained that in order to make the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution effective, the United States Supreme Court has established what has come to be known as the “actual malice” standard. The actual malice standard encourages newspapers and the media to examine the actions of public officials critically. If properly applied, it means that most libel lawsuits brought by public officials should be dismissed before trial.
"I am relieved to have this suit behind me and the Winona Post," said Edstrom. "As the largest circulation newspaper in the Winona area, we will now be able to get back to business and implement initiatives that will cement our position as the premier community newspaper in this area of Southeastern Minnesota and Western Wisconsin.
"Our readers have come to expect the Winona Post to shed light on local government and the officials responsible for it. This settlement will not change that.
"We appreciate the support of our readers and advertisers, and are looking forward to a happy and prosperous new year for us all," Edstrom said.
Mounce Arnold said she supported the freedom of the press and its role of investigating and questioning public officials, but she felt that freedom was not “unfettered.”