Sullivan, Foley and Leonard. Sullivan, S.j.a.d.
Plaintiffs Howard J. and Caroline Theckston brought this libel suit against Triangle Publications Inc., publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Dennis M. Higgins, a reporter on the staff of the newspaper. After a 36-day trial, the jury returned a verdict for $60,000 compensatory damages in favor of Howard J. Theckston. Mrs. Theckston was awarded $20,000 additional damages for loss of consortium arising out of the libel.
Mr. Theckston is the clerk of the Camden County District Court. The charge of libel is based on a series of
newspaper articles and an editorial appearing in defendants' newspaper concerning two incidents which took place in the District Court Clerk's office.
The first involved a Puerto Rican woman who had appeared at the District Court Clerk's office in connection with a dispossess suit and who had been arrested as disorderly on Theckston's complaint, forcibly removed from the clerk's office and jailed. On the following morning the woman pleaded guilty to a disorderly person charge and was sentenced to pay a fine of $25 and costs or serve 15 days in jail. Not being able to raise the money immediately, she was remanded to jail where she remained four days until her son paid the fine and costs.
The second involved a memorandum issued two days after the first incident to personnel in the District Court Clerk's office. In it Theckston stated that it had been brought to his attention that some employees had publicly criticized his actions. The memorandum warned employees that Theckston would brook no interference with his administration of the affairs of the clerk's office and that if there should be a recurrence, he would take immediate action to dispense with the services of the person responsible.
As a result of the foregoing the newspaper wrote a series of articles and an editorial highly critical of Theckston's handling of the first incident and his issuance of the intra-office memorandum.
Theckston's contention is that these publications contained inaccuracies and were slanted against him so as to produce a distorted picture of what really happened. He alleges that his version of the first incident was not fully presented by the newspaper, and the report of the so-called interview with him was written in tongue-in-cheek style. He also charges that newspaper characterizations of his conduct and actions were so extreme and unfair as to exceed the admittedly wide latitude allowed a newspaper in reporting on the official conduct of a public official.
Defendants contend that plaintiffs failed to make out a jury issue of liability within the meaning of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S. Ct. 710, 11 L. Ed. 2 d 686 (1964), or that at least the jury verdict as to both liability and damages was contrary to the weight of the evidence.
We have examined the whole record to ascertain whether plaintiffs have presented a jury issue of liability within the framework of the rule laid down in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. We conclude that defendants' motion for a dismissal of the complaint made at the close of the evidence should have been granted.
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, held that there is a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials. The court noted that a rule compelling the critic of official conduct to guarantee the truth of all his factual assertions -- and to do so on pain of libel judgments virtually unlimited to amount -- leads to a comparable self-censorship in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The proper rule to be applied under the constitutional guarantees, said the court, was one which prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with actual malice -- that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. One seeking to prove actual malice, added ...