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CLARK v. PEARSON

December 20, 1965

Charles Patrick CLARK, Plaintiff,
v.
Drew PEARSON and the Washington Post Company, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HOLTZOFF

 This action for libel is before the Court on the defendants' motions for summary judgment.

 The plaintiff, Charles Patrick Clark, is a lawyer in active practice in Washington, D.C. One of his clients is the Government of Spain, from which he has been in receipt of a large annual retainer. Another client is a group of companies producing natural gas, whom the plaintiff represents in connection with legislative matters. The defendant, Drew Pearson, is a newspaper man, popularly known as a "columnist", who periodically writes articles or "columns" that appear under his own name in numerous newspapers throughout the United States. The defendant, The Washington Post Company, publishes a daily morning newspaper in Washington, D.C., called "The Washington Post ".

 This action is brought to recover damages for libel claimed to have been contained in a column written by the defendant Pearson and published in The Washington Post on December 1, 1961. In substance the article, after mentioning the plaintiff's profession and his clients, states that in 1949 the plaintiff and a member of the House of Representatives, whose name is given, became very friendly; that at about that time this Congressman reversed the position that he had taken previously in opposition to the "natural gas lobby"; that the Congressman became a champion of Franco and "littered" the Congressional Record with statements favorable to Spain; that he began to receive a series of checks from the plaintiff, which were listed as payments for legal advice in connection with a specific tax matter named in the article. The dates and the amounts of the checks are enumerated. It proceeds to state that the Congressman and the plaintiff were "quizzed" by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and that thereafter the Congressman wrote to the plaintiff that his, the Congressman's, law firm was withdrawing from activity in the tax case.

 It is claimed in behalf of the plaintiff that this article, in effect, charges him with having committed violations of the criminal law in endeavoring to influence the votes of a Member of Congress by paying him money. On the other hand, counsel for the defendants contend that no such charge is to be implied from the article and that the publication merely suggests at most an impropriety on the part of the Congressman and an activity of the plaintiff, which placed the Congressman in an indiscreet position.

 The case was ably and comprehensively presented by counsel for all three parties. The arguments took a wide range and not only comprised a thorough discussion of the issues of fact and law actually involved in this litigation, but included also a plea for drastic changes in the law of libel, in a manner that would radically devitalize and impair the protection that it affords against defamatory publications. In view of this circumstance, it seems appropriate to make a few observations on the basic status of the law of libel in Anglo-American jurisprudence.

 The common law sedulously guarantees to every individual various civil rights, such as the right of personal freedom, the right of personal safety, and the right of property. Another civil right safeguarded by the common law is the right to one's reputation. Although it is more intangible and more imponderable than the others, it is equally fundamental and vital, and its protection is equally efficacious and vigorous.

 
"The purest treasure mortal times afford
 
Is spotless reputation: that away,

 Men are but gilded loam or painted clay." *fn1"

 The current trend in the law is to enhance and augment the protection of individual civil rights. No reason appears for making an exception as to the right to reputation. In fact the law of libel has been fortified by the recent development of the correlative right of privacy, Peay v. Curtis Pub. Co., D.C., 78 F. Supp. 305. The high regard accorded to the law of defamation is illustrated by the fact that in England, while trial by jury in civil cases has been largely abrogated since World War II, it is still preserved in its pristine vigor in connection with actions for libel or slander. The explanation given for this distinction is that most civil actions relate only to money, while actions for libel or slander involve honor and reputation, which are to be considered on a higher level.

 Nevertheless, no one is accorded the privilege of maintaining a reputation to which he is not entitled. No one is granted a legal right to sail under false colors without molestation. Consequently the law does not afford any protection against the disclosure of truth, no matter how unpalatable or disagreeable it may be; no matter how unnecessary its revelation; and no matter what the motive or purpose of the disclosure may be. Truth of a defamatory statement is always a complete defense to any action for libel or slander.

 In this case the defendants interpose four defenses, each of which will be considered separately. The first defense is truth. Counsel for the defendant Pearson discussed separately and in detail each factual item contained in the article and convincingly demonstrated by reference to depositions, affidavits, and exhibits, that each individual statement was true and accurate. This approach, however, is inadequate. An accused publication must be read as a whole. Its content must be considered in its entirety and weighed in connection with its structure, nuances, implications and connotations. Washington Post Co. v. Chaloner, 250 U.S. 290, 293, 39 S. Ct. 448, 63 L. Ed. 987. The proof of truth must be as broad as the alleged defamatory statement. It is not sufficient to take every sentence separately and demonstrate its individual accuracy, detached and wrenched out of its context.

 The meaning of the article must first be determined, that is whether it charges violations of the criminal law, as claimed by the plaintiff, or whether it has a more innocent significance as contended by the defendants. If the former construction is to be attached to the publication, then proof of truth must comprehend a showing of criminality. While in a civil suit for libel, the truth of a charge of a crime need not be established beyond a reasonable doubt, as in a criminal prosecution, it must, nevertheless, be shown by a fair preponderance of the evidence. In that event the proof adduced by counsel for the defendant Pearson at this hearing would not be broad enough to constitute a complete justification. If the more innocent interpretation is to be placed on the article, the proof of truth may be sufficient. It ...


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