The Daily Times Herald’s account of what led a former Carroll police officer to resign under the threat of termination in July 2017 was accurate, a district judge ruled Monday when he dismissed the officer’s lawsuit against the newspaper and its reporter Jared Strong.
Jacob Smith, 27, resigned July 17 amid the newspaper’s investigation into his relationships with teenage girls and women.
He was fired from his first police job in Sumner — his hometown in eastern Iowa — in 2015, in part because he sent inappropriate private messages on Facebook to a 16-year-old girl, according to recordings from a series of city council meetings that preceded his termination.
In 2016 as a police officer in Carroll, he began a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl whom he met while on-duty, and the girl later moved into his Carroll house before she graduated from high school the next year.
Smith admitted in a lawsuit deposition that his relationship with the girl “wasn’t right” and that having sex with a 17-year-old “looks like shit,” court records show.
The issue came into public light when Smith had sex with a 19-year-old woman in town, which led the live-in girlfriend to deface the woman’s car. She later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor criminal mischief charge.
Smith resigned for violating the police department’s standard of conduct that says: “Members and employees shall conduct their private and professional lives in such a manner as to reflect credit on the department and city of Carroll.”
The Times Herald published an article about Smith’s dubious relationships with teenagers the next day titled: “Carroll cop who courted teenage girls resigns.”
Smith filed a libel lawsuit against the newspaper seeking unspecified monetary damages the day after that with the help of Carroll attorney James Van Dyke, who declined to comment about the lawsuit when contacted by the Times Herald but took to local airwaves to lambast reporter Strong and the newspaper.
“The petition is based upon the limits of free press, and we certainly believe Jared Strong went beyond those limits when he used many unreliable sources and many inaccurate and untrue statements,” Van Dyke told Carroll Broadcasting. “And I had Jacob go through and highlight with a yellow highlighter all the untrue statements, and that was filed with the petition to show just how many untruths are in that story.”
District Judge Thomas Bice disagreed with Van Dyke’s assertions in his ruling this week.
“The article at issue is accurate and true, and the underlying facts undisputed,” Bice wrote in his 10-page ruling.
A main thrust of the lawsuit was that it was wrong for the Times Herald to publish quotations of Smith’s ex-wife calling him a “pedophile.”
“It will certainly affect his employability as a law enforcement officer to have all these unfair and untrue labels pasted on his forehead,” Van Dyke told Carroll Broadcasting. “And it’s just a shame that the young officer has to carry that with him.”
Court documents show that Smith has applied to dozens of police departments in Iowa since his resignation but wasn’t hired.
Bice ruled that the ex-wife’s statements were opinions and are protected speech under the First Amendment.
Further, Bice noted that there was no “substantive evidence that the news article resulted in reputational harm” to Smith, whose former status as a “public figure” makes his termination “of public interest.”
Indeed, Police Chief Brad Burke said in a lawsuit deposition that the fact Smith was terminated from his first police job and was forced to resign from his second would likely preclude him from being hired for a third.
Smith has 30 days to appeal the decision to the Iowa Supreme Court. Van Dyke declined to comment Tuesday about the decision and about whether Smith would appeal.
Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, applauded the judge’s ruling.
“I am pleased the judge found that the actions by Jared Strong and the Daily Times Herald were entirely appropriate,” Evans said. “The newspaper was carrying out its important work on behalf of the people of Carroll when it brought to light the questionable conduct of the police officer.”