On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County.
Fritz, Polow and Joelson. The opinion of the court was delivered by Polow, J.A.D.
Plaintiffs Lawrence and Simpson sought damages for libel against the corporate owner, the editor, the publisher and a reporter of the Rahway-News Record. When all of the evidence had been presented the trial judge granted a defense motion to dismiss Lawrence's claims based upon a determination that he was a "public figure." Thereafter, the jury returned a verdict of $22,500 in favor of Simpson against all defendants except the reporter.*fn1 On Lawrence's subsequent motion the dismissal of his complaint was set aside by the trial judge and a new trial ordered thereon. Defendants' motion for a new trial with respect to the verdict for plaintiff Simpson was denied.
On appeal defendants demand that the verdict and judgment in favor of Simpson be reversed, that the new trial ordered for Lawrence be set aside and that all claims by both plaintiffs be dismissed.
Lawrence and Simpson were charter members of the Rahway Taxpayers Association. Lawrence had served as president since its inception in 1965 and in that capacity expressed opinions publicly on numerous issues of concern to local taxpayers. He regularly attended city council and other local agency meetings and frequently acted as spokesman for the Association. Pursuant to his request, he received notice of special meetings.
Simpson was also an officer of the Association in 1974 and 1975 when the allegedly libelous articles were published and the activities which provoked them took place. He also attended most of the city council meetings and periodically spoke on public issues. Over the years he has written letters to the editor of local newspapers on a variety of subjects.
In 1974, Lawrence, as Association president, led a petition campaign seeking to defeat a proposed $100,000 increase in local appropriations to finance a new firehouse. Both Lawrence and Simpson and a number of other volunteers actively collected signatures in an attempt to satisfy the statutory prerequisite for a referendum on the issue.
In late December 1974 plaintiffs submitted their petitions to the city clerk. On January 3, 1975 the city clerk advised plaintiffs by letter that the petitions were invalid. On January 9, 1975 the first of the offensive articles appeared on the front page of defendants' weekly newspaper.
The two-line headline, in bold type, stretching across the entire front page announced:
City attorney rules association petitions improper: forgery charges may loom for Lawrence, Simpson
The newspaper article further particularized the charges against Lawrence and Simpson in the following first four paragraphs:
In separate actions city attorney Alan Karcher ruled the petitions filed by the officials of the Rahway Taxpayers Association are improper and attorney Theodore J. Romankow was asked to take action by city officials against association leaders because of "irregularities" in the petitions.
The Rahway News-Record learned Mr. Romankow was empowered to handle a case against Alonzo W. Lawrence, president of the association, and James Simpson, the group's secretary-treasurer.
The City's case would be based on charges that forgery was involved in the gathering of approximately 5,000 signatures which the two men filed with city clerk Robert W. Schrof on December 27, The News-Record was told.
In connection with this the men would also be charged with false swearing of oaths and affidavits, it was asserted.
Because of their concern about the effect of such an attack on their personal integrity, plaintiffs consulted counsel. Shortly thereafter a written demand for retraction was submitted, in response to which another article was published by defendants on April 17, 1975. It is also attacked as defamatory in plaintiffs' libel action. The headline proclaimed: "News-Record asked to retract article on firehouse battle." After noting the demand for retraction, the story repeated the January 9 assertion that the newspaper had been told "by a source in the administration" that the petitions had been turned over to the local prosecutor for investigation of allegations of forgery and false swearing. This time the story emphasized that the paper had been "careful to note it was told or it learned or it was asserted." However, it continued to insist that the staff reporter "accurately interpreted what was told to him . . . ." The newspaper also asserted that its comments were based on statements made by others and that it did not, in fact, accuse the men of guilt of the allegations which were under investigation by the local prosecutor.
Although the possibility of "forgeries" was a concern of the municipal officials, in fact, testimony of witnesses called by defendants compels the conclusion that plaintiffs were never accused by any municipal or other official of having committed forgery or false swearing.
During the trial plaintiffs produced witnesses who testified that the articles cast doubt on the characters and reputations of Simpson and Lawrence and that, in the opinion of those witnesses, the newspaper stories meant that plaintiffs had committed forgery.
The January 9 article was written by defendant Patsy Bontempo who, at trial, identified as his primary sources of information, municipal ...