On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 176 N.J. Super. 378 (1980).
For vacation in part and reversal in part -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Pashman, Clifford, Handler, Pollock and O'Hern. For affirmance -- Justice Schreiber. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Clifford, J. Schreiber, J., dissenting.
[89 NJ Page 454] This litigation results from the publication in the Rahway News-Record of two articles on the topic of a petition drive in the City of Rahway. Plaintiffs seek damages based on the alleged defamatory nature of both articles. Defendants, the newspaper's publisher, editor and a reporter, assert the defense of truth and the qualified First Amendment privilege protecting newspapers from liability for defamatory statements concerning public figures. The trial court ruled that plaintiff Lawrence was a public figure as set forth in Gertz v. Welch, 418 U.S. 323, 94 S. Ct. 2997, 41 L. Ed. 2d 789 (1974), and dismissed Lawrence's claim because of insufficient evidence of defendants' actual
malice. The jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff Simpson. Lawrence's post-trial motion for a new trial was granted. The Appellate Division affirmed the judgment in favor of Simpson and the order granting Lawrence a new trial. 176 N.J. Super. 378 (1981).
We agree with so much of the determination below as holds both articles to be defamatory as a matter of law. However, we find both plaintiffs to be public figures for the purposes of this controversy. Therefore, since there is no evidence of actual malice, we vacate the order awarding plaintiff Lawrence a new trial and reverse the judgment in favor of plaintiff Simpson.
In 1974 the Rahway Taxpayers Association led by plaintiffs Alonzo Lawrence, the group's president, and James Simpson, its secretary-treasurer, conducted a campaign in opposition to a municipal appropriation for the construction of a new firehouse. The Association, a citizens group made up of Rahway taxpayers, circulated petitions among Rahway's registered voters in an attempt to force a public referendum on the appropriation issue. Petitions containing over 5,000 signatures were submitted by plaintiffs to the Rahway City Clerk in late December 1974.
On or about January 7, 1975 the Rahway News Record received a telephone call from City Business Administrator Joseph Hartnett, a sometime source of news concerning City affairs. Hartnett spoke first to the editor, defendant Kurt Bauer, and then to reporter Patsy Bontempo, who had been assigned to cover the controversy surrounding the firehouse appropriation. Although the substance of Hartnett's conversations with Bauer and Bontempo is disputed, the three parties to the conversations agree that Hartnett said at least this: that there were "irregularities" in some of the signatures on the petitions filed by the Association; that the City Prosecutor, Theodore Romankow, was conducting an investigation of the petitions to determine whether there were incidents of forgery or false swearing in connection
with the signatures; and that included in the petitions being investigated were those containing signatures witnessed personally by Lawrence and Simpson.
As part of its ongoing coverage of the firehouse controversy and as a result of the conversations referred to above, the Rahway News-Record published the first of two articles that plaintiffs allege are defamatory. On January 9, 1975 the following headline spanned the entire eight columns of the Rahway News-Record's front page: "City Attorney rules association petitions improper; forgery charges may loom for Lawrence, Simpson." The accompanying article stated in pertinent part:
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 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.
In response to plaintiffs' request that the News-Record retract the allegations contained in the above-quoted article, the following headline appeared on the front page of the April 17, 1975 edition of the newspaper: "News-Record asked to retract article on firehouse battle." As acknowledged at trial by defendants, the accompanying article was not a retraction of the earlier article. Rather, it defended the earlier story as an accurate account of the facts as made known to the News-Record by "a source in the [City] administration." The April 17th article emphasized that the first article contained no accusations of guilt but merely the assertion that "city officials were turning the petitions over to the local prosecutor, which in fact they did, to investigate allegations of forgery and false swearing of oaths." The article described the Association's sponsorship of the petition drive, and reported that following an investigation by the municipal prosecutor, the petitions were referred to the
Union County prosecutor's office "for further investigations of the charges."
In conclusion the newspaper stated:
The News-Record did not and does not seek to harm Messrs. Lawrence and Simpson or to in any way injure their good names. The pair of their own choosing publicly associated themselves and their organization with the petitions.
The gentlemen, thus, are in fact associated with the petitions and the petitions are in fact the subject of an investigation for allegations of forgery and false swearing of oaths.
This did not and does not mean, nor was it ever said to mean, the gentlemen are guilty of anything.
Following the publication of the second article plaintiffs instituted this libel action against the Bauer Publishing and Printing Company, owner of the Rahway News-Record; Kurt Bauer, the paper's editor; Jeffrey Bauer, the corporation's president; and Patsy Bontempo, reporter and author of the January Ninth article.*fn1
At the outset of the trial plaintiffs moved for a ruling that the two articles in question were libelous as a matter of law and that the defense of truth should be stricken from the case. The court granted both motions inasmuch as the defendants were unprepared to prove that plaintiffs were guilty of the offenses attributed to them by the articles, namely, forgery and false swearing.
At the close of the case the court ruled that plaintiff Lawrence was a public figure for the purposes of the firehouse dispute. It granted defendants' motion to dismiss Lawrence's claim on the ground that he had failed to present clear and convincing evidence of actual malice on the part of defendants. Observing that plaintiff Simpson did not have the same degree
of access to the media as did Lawrence, the court ruled that Simpson was a private figure. Thus, the jury was charged only with respect to Simpson's claim against defendants. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Simpson against all defendants except the reporter, Patsy Bontempo, and awarded damages in the amount of $22,500.*fn2
Following the verdict plaintiff Lawrence requested the court to reconsider its earlier dismissal of his case. Persuaded that the record contained sufficient evidence to raise a jury question as to whether defendants had acted with actual malice, the trial court reversed itself and granted Lawrence's motion for a new trial.
Defendants appealed, asserting as reversible error the trial court's rulings striking the defense of truth and holding the articles libelous as a matter of law. Defendants also challenge the ruling that Simpson was not a public figure and the granting of Lawrence's motion for a new trial. Finally, defendants question the language of the jury charge on damages, an issue we do not reach because of our conclusion that both plaintiffs are public figures as set forth in Gertz v. Welch, 418 U.S. 323, 94 S. Ct. 2997, 41 L. Ed. 2d 789 (1974).
The Appellate Division upheld the rulings of the trial court and affirmed the judgment in Simpson's favor and the award of a new trial to Lawrence. Lawrence v. Bauer Publishing & Printing Ltd., 176 N.J. Super. 378 (1980). We granted defendants' motion for leave to appeal, 87 N.J. 331 (1981).
We consider first the defendants' contention that the trial court erred in ruling the two articles defamatory as a matter of
law. The effect of that ruling was to remove from the jury the question of whether the articles could reasonably be interpreted as possessing a nondefamatory meaning. The court based its ruling on the tendency of the articles to subject the plaintiffs to public contempt or ridicule. See Garven v. Finch, 97 N.J.L. 329 (E.& A.1922). Defendants argue that the existence of a defamatory meaning was a question of fact for the jury because the articles did not accuse plaintiffs of any criminal conduct. That approach reveals defendants' confusion as to the meaning of the lower court's use of the term "libel per se."
The terms "libel per se " and "libel per quod " have long been used to differentiate between writings defamatory on their face and those defamatory solely in the light of extrinsic facts. Herrmann v. Newark Morning Ledger Co., 48 N.J. Super. 420, 443 (App.Div.1958). A determination of whether certain language is defamatory on its face rests within the power of the trial court. Leers v. Green, 24 N.J. 239, 255 (1957). Only when the court finds the words to be capable of both a defamatory and a nondefamatory meaning does a question of fact arise for the jury to decide. Herrmann, supra, 48 N.J. Super. at 430. Therefore, the trial court's ruling that the two articles were libelous per se meant the court found as a matter of law that the statements were not reasonably susceptible of a nondefamatory interpretation.
To establish the defamatory nature of the articles it was not necessary for plaintiffs to prove that defendants had accused them of the commission of a crime. Words that clearly "sound to the disreputation" of an individual are defamatory on their face. Shaw v. Bender, 90 N.J.L. 147 (E.& A.1917). The unambiguous import of the two articles is to cast doubt on the reputations of plaintiffs, Lawrence and Simpson. The statement that plaintiffs "may be" charged with criminal conduct diminishes their standing in the community and is little different from an assertion that plaintiffs have actually been charged with certain crimes. Hence the court correctly ruled that the
articles were libelous per se, i.e., not susceptible of a nondefamatory interpretation.
Defendants assert that the trial court erred in granting plaintiffs' motion to strike truth as a defense. Under the common law, truth, if established, exonerates the publisher of a defamatory statement of fact. See Medico v. Time, Inc., 643 F.2d 134, 137 (3d Cir. 1981); Restatement (Second) of Torts § 581A (1977). For the defense to apply, however, the truth must be as broad as the defamatory imputation or "sting" of the statement. See Rogozinski v. Airstream by Angell, Inc., 152 N.J. Super. 133, 146-47 (Law Div.1977), modified, 164 N.J. Super. 465 (App.Div.1979); W. Prosser, Law of Torts § 116 (4th ed. 1971). See also Medico, supra, 643 F.2d at 137; Rogers v. Courier Post Co., 2 N.J. 393, 401 (1949).
After hearing argument on plaintiffs' motion to strike the defense of truth, the trial court determined that defendants' publication of the statements that plaintiffs were suspected of and being investigated for committing the crimes of forgery and false swearing imputed to plaintiffs the very commission of those crimes. Therefore, the court ruled that defendants could not assert the justification of truth unless they were prepared to prove not only that the reported investigation was conducted or that "forgery charges loomed," but also that plaintiffs did in fact commit forgery and false swearing. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 581A, comment c, at 236 (1977). When defense counsel conceded that he was unprepared to prove that plaintiffs had in fact committed the criminal offenses imputed to plaintiffs, the trial court ordered the defense of truth stricken from the case.
The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's determination:
We are, therefore, entirely satisfied that a publisher of a statement which is defamatory by suggestion or insinuation, must, in order to present an adequate defense, prove more than that the article was literally true. That the information
was received from another source is not enough. To sufficiently develop the defense of truth under the facts of this case, defendants must show that plaintiffs had in fact committed the offenses or that they had been formally charged with criminal conduct or that police or county prosecuting authorities had announced an official investigation of plaintiffs for the offenses described in the articles. [176 N.J. Super. at 389-90 (footnote and citation omitted).]*fn3
There is considerable authority for the proposition that the fact that defendants accurately reported information obtained from another source will not relieve them of liability. Under that analysis the defense of truth does not refer to the truthful republication of a defamatory statement but to the truth of the statement's contents. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 578, comment b, at 235-36 (1977). Thus, if defendant published that a third person stated that plaintiff has committed a crime, it is no justification that the third party did in fact make that statement. Rogers, supra, 2 N.J. at 401-02. Defendant must prove that in fact plaintiff committed the crime. See L. Eldridge, Law of Defamation § 67 at 331 (1978). Similarly, a statement that criminal charges were imminent would be truthful only if such charges were demonstrably impending.
The trial court viewed the statement in this case as imputing to plaintiffs the crimes of forgery and false swearing and therefore imposed on defendants the burden of proving that plaintiffs had actually committed those crimes. A more literal reading of the headline indicates that the correct interpretation may have been that charges of forgery and false swearing were forthcoming. Whether the "truth" defense should be framed in terms of proof that defendants committed the crimes referred to in the article or simply that charges concerning ...