August Opinion of the Supreme Court of Alabama (30,) (1962)
Evidence On The Merits
The plaintiff first introduced the depositional testimony of Harding Bancroft, secretary of The Times.
Mr. Bancroft thus testified that one John Murray brought the original of the advertisement to The Times where it was delivered to Gershon Aronson, an employee of The Times a Thermo-fax copy of the advertisement was turned over to Vincent Redding, manager of the advertising department, and Redding approved it for insertion in The Times. The actual insertion order issued by the Union Advertising Service of New York City.
Redding determined that the advertisement was endorsed by a large number of people who reputation for truth he considered good.
Numerous new stories from its correspondents, published in The Times, relating to certain events which formed the basis of the advertisement and which had been published from time to time in The Times were identified. These new stories were later introduced in evidence as exhibits.
Also introduced through this witness was a letter from A. Philip Randolph certifying that the four individual defendants had all given permission to use their names in furthering the work of the "Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South."
Mr. Bancroft further testified that The Times received a letter from the plaintiff date 7 April 1960, demanding a retraction of the advertisement. They replied by letter dared 15 April 1960, which they asked Mr. Sullivan what statements in the advertisement reflected on him.
After the receipt of the letter from the plaintiff, The Times had McKee its "string" correspondent in Montgomery, and Sitton, its staff correspondent in Atlanta, investigate the truthfulness of the allegations in the advertisement. Their lengthy telegraphic reports, introduced in evidence showed that the Alabama College officials had informed them that the statement that the dining room at the College had been padlocked to starve the students into submission was absolutely false; that all but 28 of the 1900 students had re-registered and meal service was furnished all students on the campus and was available even to those who had not registered, upon payment for the meals; that the Montgomery police entered the campus upon request of the College officials, and then only after a mob of rowdy students had threatened the negro college custodian, and after a college policeman had fired his pistol in the air several times in an effort to control the mob. The city police had merely tried to see that the orders of the Alabama College officials were not violated.
Sitton's report contained the following pertinent statements:
" * * * Paragraph 3 of the advertisement, which begins, 'In Montgomery, Alabama, after students sang' and so forth, appears to be virtually without any foundation. The students sand the National Anthem. Never at any time did police 'ring' the campus although on three occasions they were deployed near the campus in large numbers. Probably a majority of the student body was at one time or another involved in the protest but not 'entire student body.' I have been unable to find any one who has heard that the campus dining room was padlocked. * * * In reference to the 6th paragraph, beginning: 'Again and again the Southern violators' and so forth, Dr. King's home was bombed during the bus boycott some four years ago. his wife and child were there but were not (repeat not) injured in any way. King says that the only assault against his person took place when he was arrested some four years ago for loitering outside a courtroom. The arresting officer twisted King's arm behind the minister's back in taking him to be booked.
The reports further show that King had been arrested only twice by the Montgomery police. Once for spending on which charge he was convicted and paid a $10.00 fine, and once for "loitering" on which charge he was convicted and fined $14.00, this fine being paid by the then police commissioner whom the plaintiff succeeded in office.
Mr. Bancroft further testified that upon receipt of a letter from John Patterson, Governor of Alabama, The Times' judgment no statement in the advertisement in the advertisement referred to John Patterson either personally or as Governor of Alabama. However, The Times felt that since Patterson held the high office of Governor of Alabama and believed that he had been libeled, they should apologize.
Grover C. Hall, Jr., Arnold D. Blackwell, William H. MacDonald, Harry W. Kaminsky, H. M. Price, Sr., William M. Parker, Jr., and Horace W. White, all residents of the city of Montgomery, as well as the plaintiff, testified over the defendant's objections that upon reading the advertisement they associated it with the plaintiff, who was Police Commissioner.
E. Y. Lacy, Lieutenant of detectives for the City of Montgomery, testified that he had investigated the bombings, "The Police Department did extensive research work with overtime and extra personnel and we did everything that we knew including inviting and working with other departments throughout the country."
O. M. Strickland, a police officer of the City of Montgomery, testified that he had arrested King on the loitering charge after King had attempted to force his way into an already overcrowded courtroom, Strickland having been instructed not to admit any additional persons to the courtroom unless they had been subpoenaed as a witness. At no time did he nor anyone else assault King in any manner, and King was permitted to make his own bond and was released.
In his own behalf the plaintiff, Sullivan, testified that he first read the advertisement in the Mayor's office in Montgomery. He testified that he took office as a Commissioner of the City of Montgomery in October 1959, and had occupied that position since. Mr. Sullivan testified that upon reading the advertisement he associated it with himself, and in response to a question on cross-examination, stated that he felt that he had been greatly injured by it.
Mr. Sullivan gave further testimony as to the falsity of the assertions contained in the advertisement.
For the defense, Gershon Aronson, testified that the advertisement was brought to him by John Murray and he only scanned it hurriedly before the advertisement was sent to the Advertising Acceptability Department of The New York Times. As to whether the word "they" as used in the paragraph of the advertisement charging that "Southern violators" had bombed King's home, assaulted his person, arrested him seven times, etc., referred to the same people as "they" in the paragraph wherein it was alleged that the Alabama College students were padlocked out of their dining room in an attempt to starve them into submission and that the campus was ringed with police, armed with shotguns, tear gas, etc. Aronson first stated, "Well, it may have referred to the same people. It is rather difficult to tell" and a short while later Aronson stated, "Well, I think now it probably refers to the same people."
The Times was paid in the vicinity of $4,800 for publishing the advertisement.
D. Vincent Redding, assistant to the manager of the Advertising Acceptability Department of The Times, testified that he examined the advertisement and approved it, seeing nothing in it to cause him to believe it was false, and further he placed reliance upon the endorsers "whose reputations I had no reason to question." On cross-examination Mr. Redding testified he had not checked with any of the endorsers as their familiarity with the events in Montgomery to determine the accuracy of their statements, nor could he say whether he had read any news accounts concerning such events which had been published in The Times. The following is an excerpt from Mr. Redding's cross-examination:
"Q Now, Mr. Redding, wouldn't't it be a fair statement to say that you really didn't check this ad at all for accuracy?"
"A That's a fair statement, yes."
Mr. Harding Bancroft, Secretary of The Times, whose testimony taken by deposition had been introduced by the plaintiff, testified in the trial below as a witness for the defendants. His testimony is substantially in accord with that given in his deposition and we see no purpose in an additional delineation of it.
As a witness for the defense, John Murray testified that he was a writer living in New York City. He was a volunteer worker for the "Committee to Defend Martin Luther King," etc., and as such was called upon, together with two other writers, to draft the advertisement in question.
These three were given material by Bayard Rustin, the Executive Director Committee, a basis for composing the advertisement. Murray stated that Rustin is a professional organizer, he guessed along the line of raising funds. Murray knew that Rustin had been affiliated with the War Resisters League, among others.
After the first proof of the advertisement was ready, Rustin called Jim to his office and stated he was dissatisfied with it as it did not have the kind of appeal it should have if it was to get the response in funds the Committee needed.
Rustin then stated they could add the names of the individual defendants since by virtue of their membership in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which supported the work of the Committee, he felt they need not consult them.
The individual defendants' names were them placed on the advertisement under the legend "We in the South who are struggling daily for dignity and freedom warmly endorse this appeal."
Murray further testified that he and Rustin rewrote the advertisement "to get money" and "project the ad in the most appealing form from the material we were getting."
As to the accuracy of the advertisement, Murray testified:
"Well, that did not enter the—it did not enter into consideration at all except we took it for granted that it was accurate—we took it for granted that it was accurate—they were accurate—and if they hadn't been—I mean we would have stopped to question it—I mean we would have stopped to question it. We had every reason to believe it."
The individual defendants all testified to the effect that they had not authorized The New York Times, Philip Randolph, the "Committee to Defend Martin Luther King," etc., nor any other person to place their names on the advertisement, and in fact did not see the contents of the advertisement until receipt of the letter from the plaintiff.
They all testified that after receiving the letter demanding a retraction of the advertisement they had not replied thereto, not had they contacted any person or group concerning the advertisement or its retraction.
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