Brief for Respondent
In the New York Times of March 29, 1960, there appeared a full-page advertisement, "warmly endorsed" by the four petitioners in No. 40, entitled, "Heed Their Rising Voices."1 Charging generally "an unprecedented wave of error," the advertisement said of Montgomery:
"In Montgomery, Alabama, after students sang 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee' on the State Capitol steps, their leaders were expelled from school, and truckloads of police armed with shotguns and tear-gas ringed the Alabama State College Campus. When the entire student body protested to state authorities by refusing to re-register, their dining hall was padlocked in an attempt to starve them into submission.
* * * * * * *
"Again and again the Southern violators have answered Dr. King's peaceful protests with intimidation and violence. They have bombed his home almost killing his wife and child. They have assaulted his person. They have arrested him seven times—for 'speeding,' 'loitering' and similar 'offenses.' And now they have charged him with 'perjury'—a felony under which they could imprison him for ten years."
Respondent, police commissioner of Montgomery, asked $500,000 as damages for this libel from the New York Times and the four "warm endorsers."
After a lengthy hearing the trial court held on August 5, 1960, that the New York Times was amenable to suit in Alabama. It had made a general appearance the court found. And, moreover, its business activities in Alabama, some of which had given rise to the cause of action, were sufficient contacts under due process standards to permit service on a Times string correspondent residing in Alabama, and on the Secretary of State under the Alabama Substituted Service Statute2 (R. 49–57).
After its demurrers had been overruled (R.108) the Times filed six separate pleas to the complaint (R. 99–105). Although truth regardless of motive is a complete defense to a libel suit in Alabama (see infra), the Times and its codefendants filed no plea of truth. Although privilege and fair comment are defenses in Alabama in appropriate circumstances (see infra), the Times and its co-defendants did not plead these defenses. At the conclusion of the trial a jury returned a verdict against all defendants for $500,000, and the trial court entered a judgment against all defendants in this amount.3 Petitioner does not assert here any due process defects in these trial proceedings, and does not attack the motives and conduct of the jury.
The Times filed a motion for new trial, which was overruled (R. 970); the petitioners in No. 40 filed motions for new trial, but allowed them to lapse (R. 984, 998, 1013, 1028).
The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the judgment as to all defendants (R. 1180).
The Times complains in this Court: (1) The holdings of the Alabama courts that the publication was libelous per se and the jury verdict that it was "of and concerning" respondent abridged its guaranties under the 1st and 14th Amendments, and (2) it was not amenable to suit in Alabama.
Since the Times has told this Court that the whole libel rests on two discrepancies—mere "exaggerations or inaccuracies"4 in the course of an "impersonal"5 discussion "plainly" not meant as an attack on any individual,6 respondent will state this case.7
This lawsuit arose because of a wilful, deliberate and reckless attempt to portray in a full-page newspaper advertisement, for which the Times charged and was paid almost $5,000, rampant, vicious, terroristic and criminal police action in Montgomery, Alabama, to a nationwide public of 650,000. The goal was money-raising. Truth, accuracy and long-accepted standards of journalism were not criteria for the writing or publication of this advertisement. The defamatory matter (quoted R. 580–81) describes criminal police action because some college students innocently sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee" from the Alabama State Capitol steps. The innocent singers were expelled from school; police ringed their campus by truckloads armed with shotguns and tear gas;8 and their dining hall was padlocked to starve the students into submission. All statements charge violation of the students' rights.
The Times is not candid when it tells this Court (Brief p. 7) that "the only part" of the foregoing statement "that Respondent thought implied a reference to him was the assertion about 'truckloads of police.' " Respondent made entirely clear that he considered the padlocking charge—and all other charges except expulsion—as applicable to him as well (R. 716). The Times is also absolutely inaccurate when it tells this Court that respondent's evidence "consisted mainly" (Brief p. 7) of a story by Sitton and a report by McKee. Respondent's evidence also included the Times' answers to interrogatories; respondent's own testimony, and that of his numerous witnesses; the testimony of all of the Times' trial witnesses; the statements and judicial admissions of its attorneys; and the testimony of John Murray who testified for the individual petitioners.
The advertisement in another paragraph charges that the perpetrators of the foregoing alleged barbarisms were the same persons who had intimidated Martin Luther King; bombed his home; assaulted his person; and arrested him. All statements charge criminal conduct. Although the Times' brief tells this Court that the pronoun "they" does not point to respondent, and that such a jury finding is "absurd" (Brief p. 33), the jury was able to make the connection from the Times' own witness, Gershon Aaronson. He conceded that the word "they" as it appeared repeatedly in the quotation in the ad "refers to the same persons" (R. 745).9 Accordingly, the same police and the same police commissioner committed or condoned these alleged acts. And a jury unanimously agreed with Aaronson.
In a vain attempt to transfer these devastating statements from the constitutionally unprotected area of socially useless libel, where they belong, to the arena of constitutionally protected speech, where they obviously have no place, the Times and its friends employ various soothing phrases to describe the advertisement. It is called "political expression" and "political criticism" (pp. 29 and 30) of "public men" (p. 41); "the daily dialogue of politics" (p. 50); "a critique of government as such"; "criticism of official conduct" and "of the government" (pp. 30 and passim); "the most impersonal denunciation of an agency of government" (p. 50); a "recital of grievances and protests against claimed abuse dealing squarely with the major issue of our time" (pp. 31 and 57); "an expression which is merely wrong in fact with denigrating implications" (p. 54); an "appeal for political and social change" (A.C.L.U. brief, p.13); a "critique of attitude and method, a value judgment and opinion" (A.C.L.U. brief, p. 29).
But the ordinary, unsophisticated reader of this ad was bound to draw the plain meaning that such shocking conditions were the responsibility of those charged with the administration of the Montgomery Police Department—respondent and the other two city commissioners. Any other conclusion is impossible. The Times itself can suggest no other reference, except to the police generally, and police are under the direct control and supervision of respondent. Indeed, the Times brief (p. 44) characterizes the ad as "criticism of an elected political official …" and observes that this official should be hardy enough to take it without suing for libel.
A description of such conduct, at war with basic concepts of decency and lawful government, inevitably evokes contempt, indignation, and ridicule for the person charged with the administration of police activities in Montgomery. And obviously this was the precise intent of the authors of the advertisement. One of them, John Murray, so testified.10
Significantly, none of the Times' witnesses, and none of the petitioners in No. 40, all of whom testified, presented any evidence designed to show that the statements from the ad were true. Certainly, the individual petitioners in No. 40, two of whom lived in Montgomery, had no reason to withhold testimony harmful to respondent.
The reference to respondent as police commissioner is clear from the ad. In addition, the jury heard the testimony of a newspaper editor (R. 602, et seq.); a real estate and insurance man (R. 613, et seq.); the sales manager of a men's clothing store (R. 634, et seq.); a food equipment man (R. 644, et seq.); a service station operator (R. 649, et seq.); and the operator of a truck line for whom respondent had formerly worked (R. 662, et seq.). Each of these witnesses stated that he associated the statements with respondent, and that if he had believed the statements to be true, he would have considered such conduct reprehensible in the extreme.11
Unless the Times is asking this Court to assume the functions of a jury and to weigh the credibility of this relevant testimony, nothing could be more irrelevant than the time and place of the witnesses' first inspection of the ad. Even so, the Times has had to adjust the testimony to make its dubious point,12 and it seems to forget that all of its witnesses were its own employees.
Undoubtedly the demonstrable falsity of the statements prevented pleas of truth or privilege or fair comment. Indeed, the Times published a retraction of the same paragraphs for Governor Patterson on May 16, 1960 (R. 596 and 1958–1961):
"Since publication of the advertisement, The Times made an investigation and consistent with its policy of retracting and correcting any errors or misstatements which may appear in its columns, herewith retracts the two paragraphs complained of by the Governor."
The Times asked its Montgomery string correspondent, McKee, for an investigation. On April 14, 1960, five days before suit was filed, McKee advised that the statements in the first quoted paragraph of the ad were false; and that King had been arrested twice by the Montgomery police for loitering and speeding and twice by the Sheriff's office for violation of the State boycott law and on charge of income tax falsification—a charge on which he was subsequently acquitted. Nevertheless, the Times, instead of retracting, wrote respondent that with the exception of the padlocking statement the rest of the quoted material was "substantially correct" (R. 589).
Later the Times directed another investigation by its regional correspondent, Claude Sitton. While the Times now speaks in this Court of "discrepancies" and "inaccuracies" in two instances, Sitton reported on May 4, 1960, that the first quoted paragraph of the advertisement "appears to be virtually without any foundation" (R. 594). There was no suggestion of involvement of respondent or any other city commissioner, or public employee under their charge, in the matters in the second quoted paragraph.
The Times then retracted for Governor Patterson, but not for respondent. The Times attempted to explain its inconsistency:
"The defendant … felt that on account of the fact that John Patterson held the high office of Governor of the State of Alabama and that he apparently believed that he had been libeled by said advertisement in his capacity as Governor of the State of Alabama, the defendant should apologize" (R. 595–596).
When confronted with this answer to interrogatories, Harding Bancroft, then secretary of The New York Times, could give no reason for the different treatment of Governor Patterson and respondent. They were "on a par." But there was a retraction for Patterson and not for respondent (R. 779).13
Undisputed trial testimony showed that respondent and the other commissioners and the Montgomery police had nothing to do with the King bombings; that a city detective had helped dismantle a live bomb which had been thrown on King's front porch (R. 685); and that the department had exerted extraordinary efforts to apprehend the persons responsible (R. 686–687). The occurrence of this event before respondent took office simply compounds the libelous nature of this advertisement which seeks to portray such matters as current actions which "they" took. The ordinary reader, chronologically unsophisticated, would clearly associate the acts with the current city government.
Another police officer testified without contradiction that no one had assaulted King when he had been arrested for loitering outside the courtroom (R. 692–693).
Frank Stewart, State Superintendent of Education, testified without contradiction that students had not been expelled from school for singing on the capitol steps (R. 700).
The uncontroverted testimony of falsity was so overwhelming that counsel for the Times repeatedly brought out from witnesses that the statements quoted from the ad were not true. Moreover, he stated that truth was not in issue in the case because it had not been pleaded (A compendium of counsel's statements is in Appendix B of the brief in opposition, pp. 48–52). Counsel would not and could not have made such statements if the quoted portions of the ad had been true or if they had contained only a few "discrepancies" or "exaggerations."
Undeterred, however, in the teeth of these judicial admissions, Harding Bancroft maintained to the end an equivocal position about the correctness of the ad, with the exception of the padlocking statement.14 The Times' brief, on the contrary, candidly recites (pp. 62–65) a chronicle of the ad's falsities in addition to the padlocking statement.
Because of this testimony, when the Times six months before had retracted the same statements on the basis of the same investigation as "errors and misstatements" (R. 595–596, 1958–1961), the court below characterized Bancroft's performance as "cavalier ignoring of the falsity of the advertisement" which surely impressed the jury "with the bad faith of the Times, and its maliciousness inferable therefrom" (R. 1178). The Times is absolutely incorrect when it argues that this statement of the Court was based upon the selected portion of Bancroft's testimony excerpted on pages 21 and 22 of its brief.
Sullivan himself testified that the matters contained in the ad were false (R. 705–709); that the statements reflected "upon my ability and integrity, and certainly it has been established here that they are not true" (R. 713).
The bombing statement "referred to me and to the Police Department and the City Commissioners" (R. 718). Similarly, the other matters contained in the second quoted paragraph of the ad related to him "by virtue of being Police Commissioner and Commissioner of Public Affairs."
When asked on cross-examination whether he felt that the ad had a "direct personal reference" to him, his answer was, and it is the simple answer which any normal reader of the ad would give:
"It is my feeling that it reflects not only on me but on the other Commissioners and the community. … When it describes police action, certainly I feel it reflects on me as an individual" (R. 724).
"I have endeavored to try to earn a good reputation and that's why I resent very much the statements contained in this ad which are completely false and untrue" (R. 722).
The circumstances under which this ad was cleared for publication show a striking departure from the Times' usual meticulous screening process. So that it will print only what is "fit to print," the Times has codified an elaborate set of "advertising acceptability standards" (R. 597–601), designed "to exclude misleading, inaccurate, and fraudulent advertisements and unfair competitive statements in advertising. The chief purpose of this policy of The Times is to protect the reader and to maintain the high standards of decency and dignity in its advertising columns which The Times has developed over the years."
To be as charitable as possible, it is remarkable that no person connected with The Times investigated charges that as part of "a wave of terror," public officials in Montgomery, because students sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee" from the Capitol steps, expelled the students from school; ringed their campus with truckloads of police armed with shotguns and tear gas; padlocked dining halls to starve them into submission; and thereby maintained continuity with earlier days in which they had bombed King's home, assaulted his person, and arrested him on baseless charges.
Over sixty names appeared on the ad; none of these persons was contacted. A regional correspondent in Atlanta, who the Times admits had written news reports about racial difficulties in Montgomery, was not questioned. The Times had a string correspondent in Montgomery. It directed him to give an immediate report on the demand for retraction. But he was not asked for prior information or investigation.
In its answer to interrogatories, the Times specified sixteen contemporaneous news stories of its own as "relating to certain of the events or occurrences referred to in the advertisement"(R. 586). Aaronson, Redding, and Bancroft—the three Times witnesses—had never bothered to look at any of this news material before publishing the ad.
Aaronson, an employee on the national advertising staff, who first received the ad, testified that he did not read it (R. 741), but simply "scanned it very hurriedly" (R. 742).
Because he knew nothing which would lead him to believe that these monstrous statements were false (R. 758), Vincent Redding, head of the Advertising Acceptability Department, did not check with any of the signers of the ad; or with the regional correspondent in Atlanta; or with the string correspondent in Montgomery; or with the sixteen newspaper stories on file in his office (R. 763–765):
"Q. Mr. Redding, wouldn'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" (R. 765).
One wonders whether the performance of Messrs. Aaronson, Redding and Bancroft inspired the American Civil Liberties Union comment that the Times had suffered "liability without fault" (Brief, p. 26), and the Washington Post evaluation that " … the undisputed record facts disclose that the advertisement was published under circumstances which, by no stretch of the imagination could be characterized as anything other than complete good faith" (Brief, p. 6).
Testimony of John Murray, one of the authors of the ad, and erstwhile Hollywood "scenarist" and Broadway lyricist (R. 815), describing the manner in which the ad was composed, has been quoted previously (Footnote 10, supra).
Thus, this "appealing" congeries of monstrous and now undefended falsehoods was sent to The New York Times. Upon payment of almost five thousand dollars, it was published without any investigation as a full-page advertisement in The New York Times of March 29, 1960. Six hundred and fifty thousand copies of it circulated to the nation as part of "All the news that's fit to print." And its purveyors sat back to await the financial return on their investment in "free speech".
General appearance Petitioner, by moving to dismiss the action because the Alabama court was said to have no jurisdiction of the subject matter, made a general appearance in this case and thereby consented to the jurisdiction of the Alabama courts over its corporate person. This was the holding of both courts below. In addition, the trial court held that by bringing a mandamus action in the Supreme Court of Alabama unrelated to questions of personal jurisdiction, the Times had compounded its general appearance (R. 49–51). The holdings below, as will be demonstrated, accord with Alabama cases as well as those in a majority of the states.
The Times calls this general appearance "involuntary" (Brief, p. 75). But the Times in its brief in the Alabama Supreme Court (p. 54) said:
"Accordingly, while the motion made it clear that the only grounds for the motion were the defects in the mode of service, the prayer asserted the consequences of these defects—a lack of jurisdiction not only over the person but also over the subject matter."
And the Times still makes the subject matter argument in this Court (Brief, p. 73):
"Hence a contention that the statute is inapplicable or invalid as applied goes, in this sense, to jurisdiction of the cause as well as jurisdiction of the person."
Validity of service of process on The New York Times The courts below held that service on the string correspondent, McKee, and on the Secretary of State were valid. The trial court held that the Times had been sued on a cause of action "incident to" its business in Alabama (R.55); and the "manifold contacts which The Times maintains with the State of Alabama" make it amenable to this process and suit in the Alabama courts, commenced by service on McKee and on the Secretary of State, "regardless of its general appearance" (R. 51). The trial court found:
" … an extensive and continuous course of Alabama business activity—news gathering; solicitation of advertising; circulation of newspapers and other products. These systematic business dealings in Alabama give The Times substantial contact with the State of Alabama, considerably in excess of the minimal contacts required by the Supreme Court decisions. … The Times does business in Alabama" (R. 56–57).
The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed on this point, after extensive findings regarding the business activities of the Times in Alabama (R. 1140–1147). It adopted, as had the trial court, the test of Consolidated Cosmetics v. D-A Publishing Company, 186 F. 2d 906, 908 (7th Cir. 1951):
"The functions of a magazine publishing company, obviously, include gathering material to be printed, obtaining advertisers and subscribers, printing, selling and delivering the magazines for sale. Each of these, we think, constitutes an essential factor of the magazine publication business. Consequently if a non-resident corporation sees fit to perform any one of those essential functions in a given jurisdiction, it necessarily follows that it is conducting its activities in such a manner as to be subject to jurisdiction."
The court below concluded (R. 1149–1150):
"The evidence shows that The Times sent its papers into Alabama, with its carrier as its agent, freight prepaid, with title passing on delivery to the consignee. See Tit. 57, Sec. 25, Code of Alabama 1940; 2 Williston on Sales, Sec. 279 (b), p. 90. Thence the issue went to newsstands for sale to the public in Alabama, in accordance with a long standing business practice.
"The Times or its wholly owned advertising subsidiary, on several occasions, had agents in Alabama for substantial periods of time soliciting, and procuring in substantial amounts advertising to appear in The Times.
"Furthermore, upon the receipt of the letter from the plaintiff demanding a retraction of the matter appearing in the advertisement, The Times had its string correspondent in Montgomery, Mr. McKee, investigate the truthfulness of the assertions in the advertisement. The fact that Mr. McKee was not devoting his full time to the service of The Times is 'without constitutional significance.' Scripto, Inc. v. Carson, Sheriff, et al., 362 U.S. 207."
Moreover, the court below found (R. 1151):
"In the present case the evidence shows that the publishing of advertisements was a substantial part of the business of The Times, and its newspapers were regularly sent into Alabama. Advertising was solicited in Alabama. Its correspondent McKee was called upon by The Times to investigate the truthfulness or falsity of the matters contained in the advertisement after the letter from the plaintiff. The acts therefore disclose not only certain general conditions with reference to newspaper publishing, but also specific acts directly connected with, and directly incident to the business of The Times done in Alabama."
The exhaustive findings of fact contained in the opinions of both Alabama courts are fully substantiated in the record, and are not challenged in the Times Brief. In a qualitative sense, the test of International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 319–320, these decisions below were clearly correct. The Times from 1956 through April, 1960, conducted an extensive and continuous course of business activity in Alabama. The annual revenue was over twice as great as the $42,000 which this Court found sufficient to establish adequate Florida contacts in Scripto v. Carson, 362 U.S. 207.
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