Goldmann, Freund and Conford. The opinion of the court was delivered by Freund, J.A.D.
This is an action for libel brought by plaintiff, Robert J. H. Mick, a dentist, against the American Dental Association and its officers, based on a letter written by an official of the Association in response to a communication from Charles W. Yeates, another dentist, and upon a series of articles published by the Association on the subject of fluoridation.
Plaintiff appeals from a judgment of dismissal, with prejudice, entered by the trial judge at the close of plaintiff's case. The judge held that the letter was not libelous as a matter of law but merely an opinion sent to a person
who had a right to be informed, and that it was a non-malicious privileged communication. With respect to the articles, the court concluded that they dealt with subject matter of general public concern, without any direct or indirect reference to plaintiff.
Robert J. H. Mick has engaged in the general practice of dentistry in Camden County since 1935, except for an interval of about 2 1/2 years, from September 1953 to February 1956, when he was in the military service of the United States with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and stationed for the most part in Germany. He was associated in the military service with Major Charles W. Yeates. Both are members in good standing of the defendant, American Dental Association, a non-pecuniary professional association.
The fluoridation of potable waters as an effective means of building an immunity in teeth to make them less susceptible to decay has for many years engaged the serious study and investigation of dentists, physicians, their professional organizations, and of public health authorities. Since about 1939 the United States Public Health Service has been making epidemiological surveys. In about 1951, the American Dental Association officially sponsored fluoridation. In this it has the support of the American Medical Association, National Research Council, American Public Health Association, and the public health services of the Federal Government and of various states. The position taken by the defendants was preceded by extensive discussions in its official publication, The Journal of the American Dental Association , as well as the distribution of pamphlets and brochures on various phases of the problem. Opponents of fluoridation were articulate and vehement and, in some areas, well organized. They, too, disseminated their views widely through all kinds of publications and public forums.
Plaintiff was among the proponents of fluoridation for about four years, from 1944 to 1948, but then as a result of his independent research, studies and experimental work, he concluded that the artificial use of fluorides was harmful. Plaintiff thereupon embarked on a campaign in violent
opposition to fluoridation. He talked at public forums in various states. He wrote letters to many newspapers, printed and mimeographed pamphlets containing his views and circulated them among newspapers and magazines throughout the United States. One of his letters was published in the Congressional Record. While in the military service in Germany, he wrote a letter to the mayor of the City of Kassel, Germany which had begun to use fluoridation, offering to go to that city to speak against and present his arguments on the harmful effects of fluoridation.
On December 3, 1954 the plaintiff requested his army associate, Dr. Charles W. Yeates, to write the following letter to the defendant:
American Dental Association
Bureau of Public Information
From time to time the name of Dr. Robert J. H. Mick has come to my attention as being one of those apparently violently against fluoridation. I have read charges that he has made against our American Dental Association and certain members thereof, the American Medical Association, the United States Public Health Service and certain members thereof. I understand that he has made such accusations over the radio and television also.
I do not believe he is aiding much in the cause of fluoridation.
Is he a member in good standing in the American Dental Association? Do you know anything about him that could be used to discredit him? What is your opinion or answer to the accusations?
If he is wrong -- what can be done to prevent his further connection with the American Dental Association and his accusations of fluoridation and the members of the American Dental Association and sponsoring same?
Could charges be brought against him?
Awaiting your answer as I need any suggestions that you may have,
Plaintiff acknowledged that the foregoing letter was sent by Dr. Yeates at his request evidenced by the following notation in his handwriting on the copy of the letter:
"27, January 1955 -- Above was sent at my request and with my knowledge. (Signed) Robert J. H. Mick."
Dr. Mick testified that he had read that the Bureau of Public Information of the American Dental Association had invited inquiries with respect to the opposition to fluoridation and he requested Dr. Yeates to write the letter because he "was always being kidded [by all his associates] about being opposed to fluoridation * * *" "I had been so active in opposing fluoridation in the Army and before I went into the Service, I wondered if they had anything on me. It was curiosity."
The following reply letter is plaintiff's primary basis for this suit.
Major Charles W. Yeates, DC
This is in reply to your registered letter of December 3 addressed to the American Dental Association in which you make ...