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Churchill v. State

June 23, 2005

SCOTT E. CHURCHILL AND MICHAEL RUSSO, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, COMMISSION OF INVESTIGATION, ROBERT CLARK, MICHAEL DANCISIN, AND ILEANA SAROS, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Warren County, Docket No. L-187-03.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Petrella, P.J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE COMMITTEE ON OPINIONS

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Submitted May 23, 2005

Before Judges Petrella, Parker and Yannotti.

Plaintiffs Scott E. Churchill and Michael Russo appeal from the dismissal of their complaint alleging defamation. The Law Division dismissed the complaint on the ground that it was filed beyond the applicable one-year statute of limitations. This appeal raises the novel question of whether the "single publication rule" applies to publication on the Internet.

On appeal, plaintiffs argue: (1) the single publication rule should not be extended to claims of libel for items posted on an Internet website; (2) there were significant changes to defendants' website within the applicable statute of limitations period constituting a republication of the offending material; and (3) plaintiffs should be permitted time for discovery to acquire additional information.

Churchill and Russo were volunteers with the Warren County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Defendants Robert Clark, Michael Dancisin and Ileana Saros were employed by the State Commission of Investigation (SCI), a governmental entity empowered to conduct investigations regarding the proper execution and enforcement of State laws, the conduct of public officers and employees and any matter concerning the public peace, public safety and public justice. The SCI also conducts investigations as requested by the Governor or the Legislature. N.J.S.A. 52:9M-1 to -20; Pelullo v. State of N.J., Comm'n of Investigation, 294 N.J. Super. 336, 346 (App. Div. 1996), certif. denied, 149 N.J. 35 (1997).

The SCI functions to explore areas of concern which may be a proper subject for legislative or executive action; it is not an "accusatory" body. Pelullo, supra, 294 N.J. Super. at 346-347 (citing Zicarelli v. N.J. State Comm'n of Investigation, 55 N.J. 249, 258, 260-261 (1970), aff'd, 406 U.S. 472, 92 S.Ct. 1670, 32 L.Ed. 2d 234 (1972)). It is obligated to issue an annual report and such interim reports as it deems advisable or as required by the Governor or the Legislature, N.J.S.A. 52:9M-10, and to keep the public informed of its activities. N.J.S.A. 52:9M-11.

In 1997, the SCI began a statewide investigation into the State's Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that was conducted by Clark, Dancisin and Saros and resulted in the publication by the SCI of a report on April 26, 2001 (report). A portion of this report was directed at the Warren County Society and plaintiffs allege that the facts cited in that portion of the report improperly accuse them of dishonesty, secrecy and fiscal irresponsibility. The report also stated that plaintiffs' fiscal mismanagement had left the Warren County Society in an untenable situation.*fn1

On April 24, 2003, plaintiffs filed a pro se complaint against defendants, alleging defamation based upon the April 26, 2001 publication. Plaintiffs contend that when the SCI published its report defendants knew or had reason to know that it contained libelous statements which injured them, and that defendants published those statements with malice, "in an effort to discredit, malign, and impugn the honesty and integrity of Plaintiffs." Defendants denied liability and asserted the defense of the one-year statute of limitations for defamation claims. N.J.S.A. 2A:14-3.

Defendants then successfully moved to dismiss under R. 4:6-2(e), on the basis that the defamation claim was time-barred by the one-year statute of limitations. In applying the statute, the judge applied the single publication rule to the publication of the SCI report on the Internet.

I.

Plaintiffs contend that the single publication rule should not be extended to publication on the Internet. They argue that the Internet is akin to radio and television broadcasts where the multiple publication rule applies, and should not be treated in the same manner as the publication of books and magazines, as to which the single publication rule applies.

Plaintiffs also contend that publishers of material on the Internet (Internet publishers) lack the "internal controls" and professionalism found in traditional print media. Hence, Internet publishers should not ...


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