White v. Nicholls , 44 U.S. 266 ( 1845 )

  • 44 U.S. 266 (1845)
    3 How. 266


    Supreme Court of United States.

    *278 May and R. Brent, for the plaintiff in error.

    Bradley and Coxe, for the defendants in error.

    May, for plaintiff in error.

    *284 Mr. Justice DANIEL delivered the opinion of the court.

    In the investigation of these cases it is deemed unnecessary to examine seriatim the five bills of exceptions sealed by the Circuit Court, and made parts of the record in each of them. The papers declared upon as libellous, and the instructions asked of the Circuit Court, are literally the same in both actions; the reasons, too, which influenced the decision of the court pervade the whole of these instructions, and are presented upon their face.

    Before proceeding more particularly to consider the rulings of the court upon these instructions, it may be proper to animadvert upon a point of pleading which was incidentally raised in the argument for the defendants in error; which point was this: that, assuming the publication declared on as a libel to be one which would be prima facie privileged, the circumstances which would render it illegal, in other words, the malice which prompted it, must be expressly averred. Upon this point the court will observe, in the first place, that in cases like the one supposed in argument, they hold, that in describing the act complained of the word "maliciously" is not indispensable to characterize it; they think that the law is satisfied with words of equivalent power and import: thus, for instance, the word "falsely" has been held to be sufficiently expressive of a malicious intent, as will be seen in the authorities cited 2 Saund. 242 a, (note 2.) But the declaration in each of these cases charges the defendants, in terms, with maliciously and wickedly intending to injure the plaintiff in his character, and thereby to effect his removal from office, and the appointment of one of the defendants in his stead; and with that view, with having falsely, wickedly, and maliciously composed and published, and having caused to be composed and published, a false, malicious, and defamatory libel concerning the plaintiff, both as a citizen and an officer. The averments in these declarations appear to the court, in point of fact, to be full up to the requirement insisted on, and to leave no room for the criticism attempted with respect to them. But the defence set up for the defendants in error reaches much farther and to results infinitely higher *285 than any thing dependent upon a mere criticism upon forms of pleading. It involves this issue, so important to society, viz.: How far, under an alleged right to examine into the fitness and qualifications of men who are either in office or are applicants for office — or, how far, under the obligation of a supposed duty to arraign such men either at the bar of their immediate superiors or that of public opinion, their reputation, their acts, their motives or feelings may be assailed with impunity — how far that law, designed for the protection of all, has placed a certain class of citizens without the pale of its protection? The necessity for an exclusion like this, it will be admitted by all, must indeed be very strong to justify it: it will never be recognised for trivial reasons, much less upon those that may be simulated or unworthy. If we look to the position of men in common life, we see the law drawing providently around them every security for their safety and their peace. It not only forbids the imputation to an individual of acts which are criminal and would subject him to penal infliction; but, regarding man as a sympathetic and social creature, it will sometimes take cognisance of injuries affecting him exclusively in that character. It will accordingly give a claim to redress to him who shall be charged with what is calculated to exclude him from social intercourse; as, for instance, with being the subject of an infectious, loathsome, and incurable disease. The principle of the law always implying injury, wherever the object or effect is the exposure of the accused to criminal punishment or to degradation in society. These guardian provisions of the law, designed, as we have said, for the security and peace of persons in the ordinary walks of private life, appear in some respects to be extended still farther in relation to persons invested with official trusts. Thus it is said that words not otherwise actionable, may form the basis of an action when spoken of a party in respect of his office, profession, or business: Ayston v. Blagrave, Strange, 617, and 2 Ld. Raym. 1369. Again, in Lumby v. Allday, 1 Crompt. & Jarv. 301, where words are spoken of a person in an office of profit, which have a natural tendency to occasion the loss of such office, or which impute misconduct in it, they are actionable. And this principle embraces all temporal offices of profit or trust, without limitation: 1 Starkie on Slander, 124.

    With regard to that species of defamation which is effected by writing or printing, or by pictures and signs, and which is technically denominated libel, although in general the rules applicable to it are the same which apply to verbal slander, yet in other respects it is treated with a sterner rigour than the latter; because it must have been effected with coolness and deliberation, and must be more permanent and extensive in its operation than words, which are frequently the offspring of sudden gusts of passion, and soon may be buried in oblivion: Rex v. Beau, 1 Ld. Raym. 414. It follows, therefore, that actions may be maintained for defamatory words published *286 in writing or in print, which would not have been actionable if spoken. Thus, to publish of a man in writing, that he had the itch and smelt of brimstone, has been held to be a libel. Per Wilmot, C.J., in Villers v. Mousley, 2 Wils. 403. In Cropp v. Hilney, 3 Salk., Holt, C.J., thus lays down the law: "That scandalous matter is not necessary to make a libel; it is enough if the defendant induce a bad opinion to be had of the plaintiff, or make him contemptible or ridiculous." And Bayley, J., declares in McGregor v. Thwaites, 3 Barn. & Cres. 33, that "an action is maintainable for slander either written or printed, provided the tendency of it be to bring a man into hatred, contempt, or ridicule." To the same effect are the decisions in 6 Bingh. 409, The Archbishop of Tuam v. Robeson; and in 4 Taunt. 355, Thorley v. The Earl of Kerry. In every instance of slander, either verbal or written, malice is an essential ingredient: it must in either be expressly or substantially averred in the pleadings; and whenever thus substantially averred, and the language, either written or spoken, is proved as laid, the law will infer malice until the proof, in the event of denial, be overthrown, or the language itself be satisfactorily explained. The defence of the defendants in error, the defendants likewise in the Circuit Court, is rested upon grounds forming, it is said, an established exception to the rule in ordinary actions for libel; grounds on which the decision of the Circuit Court is defended in having excluded from the jury, under the declarations in these cases, the writings charged in them as libellous. These writings were offered as evidence of express malice in the defendants. The exception relied on belongs to a class which, in the elementary treatises, and in the decisions upon libel and slander, have been denominated privileged communications or publications. We will consider, in the first place, the peculiar character of such communications, and the extent of their influence upon words or writings as to which, apart from that character, the law will imply malice. Secondly, we will examine the burden or obligation imposed by the law upon the party complaining to remove presumptions which might seem to be justified by the occasion of such communications, and to develope their true nature. And lastly, we will compare the requirements of the law with the character of the publication before us, and with the proceedings of the Circuit Court in reference thereto. The exceptions found in the treatises and decisions before alluded to are such as the following: 1. Whenever the author and publisher of the alleged slander acted in the bona fide discharge of a public or private duty, legal or moral; or in the prosecution of his own rights or interests. For example, words spoken in confidence and friendship, as a caution; or a letter written confidentially to persons who employed A. as a solicitor, conveying charges injurious to his professional character in the management of certain concerns which they had intrusted to him, and in which the writer of the letter was also interested, *287 2. Any thing said or written by a master in giving the character of a servant who has been in his employment. 3. Words used in the course of a legal or judicial proceeding, however hard they may bear upon the party of whom they are used. 4. Publications duly made in the ordinary mode of parliamentary proceedings, as a petition printed and delivered to the members of a committee appointed by the House of Commons to hear and examine grievances.

    But the term "exceptions," as applied to cases like those just enumerated, could never be interpreted to mean that there is a class of actors or transactions placed above the cognisance of the law, absolved from the commands of justice. It is difficult to conceive how, in society where rights and duties are relative and mutual, there can be tolerated those who are privileged to do injury legibus soluti; and still more difficult to imagine, how such a privilege could be instituted or tolerated upon the principles of social good. The privilege spoken of in the books should, in our opinion, be taken with strong and well-defined qualifications. It properly signifies this, and nothing more. That the excepted instances shall so far change the ordinary rule with respect to slanderous or libellous matter, as to remove the regular and usual presumption of malice, and to make it incumbent on the party complaining to show malice, either by the construction of the spoken or written matter, or by facts and circumstances connected with that matter, or with the situation of the parties, adequate to authorize the conclusion. Thus in the case of Cockayne v. Hodgkisson, 5 Car. & Pa. 543, we find it declared by Parke, Baron, "That every wilful and unauthorized publication injurious to the character of another is a libel; but where the writer is acting on any duty legal or moral, towards the person to whom he writes, or is bound by his situation to protect the interests of such person, that which he writes under such circumstances is a privileged communication, unless the writer be actuated by malice." So in Wright v. Woodgate, 2 Crompton, Meeson & Roscoe, 573, it is said, "a privileged communication means nothing more than that the occasion of making it rebuts the prima facie inference of malice arising from the publication of matter prejudicial to the character of the plaintiff, and throws upon him the onus of proving malice in fact; but not of proving it by extrinsic evidence only; he has still a right to require that the alleged libel itself shall be submitted to the jury, that they may judge whether there is evidence of malice on the face of it." In regard to the second example mentioned, viz., that of a master giving the character of a servant, although this is a privileged communication, it is said by Lord Mansfield in Weatherstone v. Hawkins, 1 T.R. 110, and by Parke, J., in Child v. Affleck, 9 Barn. & Cres. 406, that if express malice be shown, the master will not be excused. And the result of these authorities, with many others which bear upon this head is this, that if the conduct of the defendant entirely consists *288 of an answer to an inquiry, the absence of malice will be presumed, unless the plaintiff produces evidence of malice; but if a master unasked, and officiously, gives a bad character to a servant, or if his answer be attended with circumstances from which malice may be inferred, it will be a question for the jury to determine, whether he acted bona fide or with malice.

    With respect to words used in a course of judicial proceeding, it has been ruled that they are protected by the occasion, and cannot form the foundation of an action of slander without proof of express malice; for it is said that it would be matter of public inconvenience, and would deter persons from preferring their complaints against offenders, if words spoken in the course of their giving or preferring their complaint should be deemed actionable; per Lord Eldon in Johnson v. Evans, 3 Esp. 32: and in the case of Hodgson v. Scarlett, 1 Barn. & Ald. 247, it is said by Holroyd, J., speaking of the words of counsel in the argument of a cause, "If they be fair comments upon the evidence, and relevant to the matter in issue, then unless malice be shown, the occasion justifies them. If, however, it be proved that they were not spoken bona fide, or express malice be shown, then they may be actionable." Abbot, J., in the same case remarks, "I am of opinion that no action can be maintained unless it can be shown that the counsel availed himself of his situation maliciously to utter words wholly unjustifiable." In relation to proceedings in courts of justice, it has been strongly questioned whether, under all circumstances, a publication of a full report of such proceedings will constitute a defence in an action for a libel. In the case of Curry v. Walter, 1 Bos. & Pul. 525, it was held that a true report of what passed in a court of justice was not actionable. The same was said by Lord Ellenborough in Rex v. Fisher, 2 Camp. 563; but this same judge in Rex v. Crevy, 1 M. & S. 273, and Bayley, J., in Rex v. Carlisle, dissented from this doctrine as laid down in Curry v. Walter, observing that it must be understood with very great limitations; and by Tindal, C.J., in the case of Delegal v. Highly, 3 Bing. N.C. 690, it is said "to be an established principle upon which the privilege of publishing the report of any judicial proceeding is admitted to rest, that such report must be strictly confined to the actual proceedings in court, and must contain no defamatory observations or comments from any quarter whatsoever in addition to what forms strictly and properly the legal proceedings." So a publication of the result of the evidence is not privileged; the evidence itself must be published. Neither is a publication of a counsel's speech unaccompanied by the evidence. Lewis v. Walter, 4 Barn. & Ald. 605; Flint v. Pike, Ibid. 473.

    Publications duly made in the ordinary course of parliamentary proceedings have been ruled to be privileged, and therefore not actionable. As where a false and scandalous libel was contained in *289 a petition which the defendant caused to be printed and delivered to the members of the committee appointed by the House of Commons to hear and examine grievances, it was held not to be actionable. Such appears to be the doctrine ruled in Lake v. King, 1 Saund. 163; and the reason there assigned for this doctrine is, that the libel was in the order and course of proceedings in the Parliament, which is a court. The above case does certainly put the example of a privileged communication more broadly than it has been done by other authorities, and it seems difficult, from its very comprehensive language, to avoid the conclusion, that there might be instances of privilege which could not be reached even by the clearest proof of express malice. The point, however, appearing to be ruled by that case, is so much in conflict with the current of authorities going to maintain the position that express malice cannot be shielded by any judicial forms, that the weight and number of these authorities should not, it is thought, be controlled and even destroyed by the influence of a single and seemingly anomalous decision. The decision of Lake v. King should rather yield to the concurring opinions of numerous and enlightened minds, resting as they do upon obvious principles of reason and justice. The exposition of the English law of libel given by Chancellor Kent in the second volume of his Commentaries, part 4th, p. 22, we regard as strictly coincident with reason as it is with the modern adjudications of the courts. That law is stated by Chancellor Kent, citing particularly the authority of Best, J., in the case of Fairman v. Ives, 5 Barn. & Ald. 642, to the following effect: "That petitions to the king, or to parliament, or to the secretary of war, for redress of any grievance, are privileged communications, and not actionable libels, provided the privilege is not abused. But if it appear that the communication was made maliciously, and without probable cause, the pretext under which it was made aggravates the case, and an action lies." It is the undoubted right we know of every citizen to institute criminal prosecutions, or to exhibit criminal charges before the courts of the country; and such prosecutions are as much the regular and appropriate modes of proceeding as the petition is the appropriate proceeding before parliament — yet it never was denied, that a prosecution with malice, and without probable cause, was just foundation of an action, though such prosecution was instituted in the appropriate court, and carried on with every formality known to the law. The parliament, it is said, is a court, and it is difficult to perceive how malicious and groundless prosecutions before it can be placed on a ground of greater impunity than they can occupy in another appropriate forum. The case of Lake v. King, therefore, interpreted by the known principles of the law of libel, would extend the privilege of the defendant no farther than to require as to him proof of actual malice. A different interpretation would establish, as to such a case, a rule that is perfectly anomalous, and *290 depending upon no reason which is applicable to other cases of privilege.

    By able judges of our own country, the law of libel has been expounded in perfect concurrence with the doctrine given by Chancellor Kent. Thus, in the case of the Commonwealth v. Clap, 4 Mass. Rep. 169, it is said by Parsons, C.J., "that a man may apply by complaint to the legislature to remove an unworthy officer; and if the complaint be true, and made with honest intentions of giving information, and not maliciously, or with intent to defame, the complaint will not be a libel. And when any man shall consent to be a candidate for a public office conferred by the election of the people, he must be considered as putting his character in issue, so far as it may respect his fitness and qualifications for the office; and publications of the truth on this subject, with the honest intention of informing the people, are not a libel; for it would be unreasonable to conclude, that the publication of truths, which it is the interest of the people to know, should be an offence against their laws. For the same reason, the publication of falsehood and calumny against public officers, or candidates for public offices, is an offence dangerous to the people, and deserves punishment, because the people may be deceived, and reject their best citizens, to their great injury, and, it may be, to the loss of their liberties. The publication of a libel maliciously, and with intent to defame, whether it be true or not, is clearly an offence against law on sound principles, &c."

    In the case of Bodwell v. Osgood, 3 Pick. Rep. 379, it was ruled, that a false complaint, made with express malice, or without probable cause, to a body having competent authority to redress the grievance complained of, may be the subject of an action for a libel, and the question of malice is to be determined by the jury. The court in this last case say, p. 384, "It may be admitted, that if the defendant had proceeded with honest intentions, believing the accusation to be true, although in fact it was not, he would be entitled to protection, and that the occasion of the publication would prevent the legal inference of malice." The court proceed further to remark, p. 385: "It has been argued that the jury should have been instructed, that the application to a tribunal competent to redress the supposed grievance was prima facie evidence that the defendant acted fairly, and that the burden of proof was on the plaintiff to remove the presumption. The judge was not requested thus to instruct the jury. He did, however, instruct them that the burden of proof was on the plaintiff to satisfy them that the libel was malicious, and that if the plaintiff did not prove the malice beyond any reasonable doubt, that doubt should be in favor of the defendant."

    We have thus taken a view of the authorities which treat of the doctrines of slander and libel, and have considered those authorities *291 particularly with reference to the distinction they establish between ordinary instances of slander, written and unwritten, and those which have been styled privileged communications; the peculiar character of which is said to exempt them from inferences which the law has created with respect to those cases that do not partake of that character. Our examination, extended as it may seem to have been, has been called for by the importance of a subject most intimately connected with the rights and happiness of individuals, as it is with the quiet and good order of society. The investigation has conducted us to the following conclusions, which we propound as the law applicable thereto. 1. That every publication, either by writing, printing, or pictures, which charges upon or imputes to any person that which renders him liable to punishment, or which is calculated to make him infamous, or odious, or ridiculous, is prima facie a libel, and implies malice in the author and publisher towards the person concerning whom such publication is made. Proof of malice, therefore, in the cases just described, can never be required of the party complaining beyond the proof of the publication itself: justification, excuse, or extenuation, if either can be shown, must proceed from the defendant. 2. That the description of cases recognised as privileged communications, must be understood as exceptions to this rule, and as being founded upon some apparently recognised obligation or motive, legal, moral, or social, which may fairly be presumed to have led to the publication, and therefore prima facie relieves it from that just implication from which the general rule of the law is deduced. The rule of evidence, as to such cases, is accordingly so far changed as to impose it on the plaintiff to remove those presumptions flowing from the seeming obligations and situations of the parties, and to require of him to bring home to the defendant the existence of malice as the true motive of his conduct. Beyond this extent no presumption can be permitted to operate, much less be made to sanctify the indulgence of malice, however wicked, however express, under the protection of legal forms. We conclude then that malice may be proved, though alleged to have existed in the proceedings before a court, or legislative body, or any other tribunal or authority, although such court, legislative body, or other tribunal, may have been the appropriate authority for redressing the grievance represented to it; and that proof of express malice in any written publication, petition, or proceeding, addressed to such tribunal, will render that publication, petition, or proceeding, libellous in its character, and actionable, and will subject the author and publisher thereof to all the consequences of libel. And we think that in every case of a proceeding like those just enumerated, falsehood and the absence of probable cause will amount to proof of malice.

    The next and the only remaining question necessary to be considered in these cases, is that which relates to the rulings of the *292 court below excluding the publication declared upon as a libel from going to the jury in connection with other evidence to establish the existence of malice. We forbear any remark upon the intrinsic character of the injury complained of, or upon the extent to which it may have been made out. These are matters not properly before us. But if the publication declared upon was to be regarded as an instance of privileged publications, malice was an indispensable characteristic which the plaintiff would have been bound to establish in relation to it. The jury, and the jury alone, were to determine whether this malice did or did not mark the publication. It would appear difficult à priori to imagine how it would be possible to appreciate a fact whilst that fact was kept entirely concealed and out of view. This question, however, need not at the present time be reasoned by the court; it has, by numerous adjudications, been placed beyond doubt or controversy. Indeed, in the very many cases that are applicable to this question, they almost without an exception concur in the rule, that the question of malice is to be submitted to the jury upon the face of the libel or publication itself. We refer for this position to Wright v. Woodgate, 2 Crompton, Mees. & Ros. 573; to Fairman v. Ives, 5 Barn. & Ald. 642; Robinson v. May, 2 Smith, 3; Flint v. Pike, 4 Barn. & Cres. 484, per Littledale, J.; Ib. 247, Bromage v. Prosser; Blake v. Pilford, 1 Mood. & Rob. 198; Parmeter v. Coupland, 6 Mees. & Welby, 105; Thomson v. Shackell, 1 Moo. & Mal. 187. Other cases might be adduced to the same point.

    Upon the whole we consider the opinion of the Circuit Court, in the several instructions given by it in these cases, to be erroneous. We therefore adjudge that its decision be reversed; that these causes be remanded to the said court, and that a venire facias de novo be awarded to try them in conformity with the principles herein laid down.

Document Info

Citation Numbers: 44 U.S. 266, 3 How. 266, 11 L. Ed. 591, 1845 U.S. LEXIS 433

Judges: Daniel

Filed Date: 2/11/1845

Precedential Status: Precedential

Modified Date: 4/15/2017

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