To the editor:
I was interested in an item that appeared in the Iowa History column, March 28 issue. It related the saga of the storied Cherry Sisters, whose act was so bad the audience pelted them with eggs old enough to vote.
Journalists, particularly those who took a course in Journalism Law, are very familiar with the Cherry Sisters. They made an important contribution to Freedom of the Press, and they made the line between fair comment and libel or slander much more distinct.
The Cherry Sisters lived in a time when entertainment options in Iowa's communities were few. The sisters formed an act and made appearances in serveral midwestern towns.
Their act was absolutely awful and newspaper writers responded accordingly. One of the sisters was described as "a knock-kneed old crone of uncertain years," and the other sisters and the act itself were described in terms that were considerably less than flattering.
The sisters sued for libel, alleging their reputations had been damaged beyond repair. The judgement came down that all of disparaging remarks were fair comment. Unless the sisters could prove the material was prepared with malicious intent, the sisters had no case.
This means that it is very difficult for a public official or anyone who makes public statements to win a libel case. It also means that journalists have to be sure of their facts, although they do have considerable latitude in presenting comment. Thanks to the Cherry Sisters, journalists have strong protection when making fair comment.
(signed) Alan Oppedal