Eastwood, Goldmann and Francis. The opinion of the court was delivered by Eastwood, S.j.a.d.
The complaint of the plaintiff, being grounded in a statement alleged to be libelous per se made by defendant to the defamation of the plaintiff, was, on motion of the defendant, dismissed by the Law Division Judge as not setting forth a cause of action. Plaintiff appeals from the judgment of dismissal.
Essentially, the facts are that in the Spring of 1951 the Borough of Seaside Park was preparing for a primary contest. It would appear that the rival factions are represented in the parties to this matter. The plaintiff's husband was a candidate for mayor, and the defendant, incumbent mayor, was seeking re-nomination. The plaintiff, along with other citizens of the borough, appealed to the Attorney-General of New Jersey, by petition, complaining of growing election corruption in the borough and requested an investigation.
Thereafter, the incumbents, of which defendant was a member, retorted with a statement in the press addressed to the "Citizens of Seaside Park," reciting the petition to the
Attorney-General, the action requested therein, setting forth the signers' names and the alleged libelous words contained therein, to wit: "Some of these signers, notably Gracie Dressler, Leroy Borton and William A. Castor, as we have already stated, are quite capable of political conniving." The balance of the statement concerns political activities of the plaintiff's alleged faction.
In her complaint, plaintiff asserts that the statement complained of was falsely and maliciously conceived and published heaping upon her defamation of character, name and credit to her injury and damage. In dismissing the complaint, the trial judge found that the statement complained of, at best, charged plaintiff with the ability to do wrong and not with any overt act or wrongdoing; and that the statement was not libelous per se.
The plaintiff contends that the trial judge erroneously failed to distinguish between the effect of written and spoken defamatory statements and that in this instance, the written libelous words are actionable since the plaintiff "has been injured in her good name, fame and credit, and brought into public scandal and disgrace with and among her neighbors and the members of her community and other worthy citizens of the State, and the defendant has thereby caused the plaintiff to be, by those neighbors and citizens particularly, suspected of being unfit for the many activities in which plaintiff is engaged, and untruthful and lacking in personal integrity"; that the innuendo ascribed to the words complained of import wrongdoing to the plaintiff; that by definition, conniving involves criminality of the party accused and as such is libelous per se; therefore, she should be permitted to introduce her proofs of libel and allow the determination thereof to rest with the jury.
The defendant contends that it is for the court to determine whether the words are reasonably capable of being considered defamatory; that they should be considered in light of the circumstances of their publication; that when so construed, the statement complained of is
harmless to the plaintiff; that the allegation of capability of "political conniving" limited the implication to political matters and, that the statement containing the alleged libelous words must be considered in its entirety as a legitimate campaign retort to the attack of a rival political faction.
"In order to be libelous per se , the defamatory words must be of such a nature that the court can presume as matter of law that they will tend to disgrace and degrade the person or hold him up to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule or cause him to be shunned and avoided; in other words, they must reflect on his integrity, his character, and his good name and standing in the community, and tend to expose him to public hatred, contempt, or disgrace. The imputation must be one which tends to affect plaintiff in a class of society whose standard of opinion the court can recognize. It is not sufficient, standing alone, that the ...