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MCGOVERN v. MARTZ

March 30, 1960

George S. McGOVERN, Plaintiff,
v.
Glenn MARTZ and Washington News Syndicate, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: YOUNGDAHL

This case is before the Court on plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings or summary judgment with respect to defendants' counterclaims, and defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings or summary judgment.

Plaintiff, a member of the House of Representatives, has brought suit against the defendants for libel resulting from their publication of a weekly newsletter entitled 'The Lowdown on Farm Affairs from Washington' (Volume 5, Number 27, dated August 1, 1958). The gravamen of the complaint is that the newsletter falsely stated that the plaintiff had a 'connection with' and sponsored 'the notorious Communist Front known as the 'American Peace Crusade" and in addition, reprinted only a portion of a House Report, *fn1" which had the effect, plaintiff alleges, of falsely signifying Congressional agreement that plaintiff was a sponsor of the American Peace Crusade.

 The defendants have denied the damaging allegations in the complaint and have lodged two counterclaims. The first alleges that plaintiff,

 '* * * for the malicious purpose of injuring counterclaimants in their trade and business, did on July 30, 1958, cause to be published of counterclaimants in the appendix of the Congressional Record (page A-7032, August 5, 1958 issue), not as a part of any official business of the Congress or any Committee thereof, but solely for personal purposes of attack in and injury to the reputation of counterclaimants, the following false, scandalous, defamatory and highly injurious libel, to wit:

 "* * * I have been disturbed by the senseless and unscrupulous smears directed at the Farmers Union by one Glenn Martz, a Washington writer of sorts who edits a newsletter on farm affairs, which he very appropriately calls the Lowdown. Its chief purpose seems to be lowdown attacks designed to discredit the leadership and the purpose of a great farm organization -- the Farmers Union. * * *

 "The Lowdown editor, Mr. Martz, has been at the business of low-level shooting for a long time. As a matter of fact some years ago he filed a story in a prominent daily newspaper in my state which promptly involved this newspaper in a libel suit that cost them many thousands of dollars in damages." *fn2"

 In the second counterclaim, defendant Martz alleges that in a letter dated August 29, 1957, 'and on numerous occasions subsequent thereto', the plaintiff 'caused to be published and republished' the following defamatory statement:

 '* * * It is an established fact that Mr. Martz is employed by a rival farm organization for the specific purpose of defaming the Farmers Union and to do all the harm he possibly can without actually libelling the organization.'

 PLAINTIFF'S MOTION.

 First Counterclaim

 In his reply, plaintiff admits that the statement complained of was inserted by him in the Congressional Record. He adds that the insertion was an Extension of Remarks, made with the consent of the House, *fn3" and is protected by an absolute privilege.

 The privilege of legislators to be immune from civil process for their actions or statements in legislative proceedings had its beginnings as least as early as 1399. *fn4" Initially acting as a shield against executive interference with the individual legislator, it has since come to protect against actions for defamation as well. The immunity was believed to be so fundamental that express provision is found in the Constitution, *fn5" although scholars have proposed that the privilege exists independently of the Constitutional declaration 'as a necessary principle in free government.' *fn6"

 Its purpose is clear: insure legislative peace of mind. The theory is that in a democracy a legislature must not be deterred from frank, uninhibited and complete discussion; since 'one must not expect uncommon courage even in legislators,' *fn7" reprisal by the executive or judicial branches for what legislators say or do within the legislature must be impossible in order to obtain free discussion and the consequent benefits to the public. *fn8" Thus the privilege is absolute: purpose, motive or the reasonableness of the conduct is irrelevant.

 The defendants have contended that the privilege, absolute when it exists, is limited, nevertheless, by a requirement that the conduct complained of be 'pertinent' to official business of the legislature. While it appears that the common law immunity was limited to conduct that had some relation to the business of the legislature, *fn9" Cochran v. Couzens, *fn10" clearly teaches that Article 1, ยง 6, cl. 1, knows no such bounds. Cochran had brought suit against Senator Couzens for slanderous remarks on the floor of the Senate. The Senator asserted his privilege and moved to dismiss; although the plaintiff's declaration averred that the Senator spoke 'unofficially and not in the discharge of his official duties as a Senator * * * of and concerning a subject not then and there pertinent or relevant to any matter under inquiry by the said Senate * * *', the lower court sustained the motion and ...


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