LOCATION: United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division
DOCKET NO.: 118
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court
CITATION: 401 US 295 (1971)
ARGUED: Dec 17, 1970
DECIDED: Feb 24, 1971
Facts of the case
Media for Ocala Star-Banner Company v. Damron
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 17, 1970 in Ocala Star-Banner Company v. Damron
Warren E. Burger:
We'll hear arguments next in number 118, the Ocala Star-Banner Company against Damron.
Mr. Wahl, you may proceed.
Harold B. Wahl:
Mr. Chief Justice, gentlemen of the Court.
This is a right interesting libel case.
The trial judge actually directed a verdict for the plaintiff on compensatory damages and told the jury that the only question was how many dollars they were going to give the plaintiff on compensatory damages?
As to punitive damages, he told the jury that they can only give those if malice were proven and the jury brought in no punitive acts.
The attorney for the plaintiff was successful in urging upon the court and the Florida courts have consistently held, in this case, that the New York Times doctrine and I quote from the opinion of the District Court of Appeal on review, only applies “to official conduct of a public official.”
The time of this case was April 1966 at the height of the civil rights controversy in the South.
The locale was rural Citrus County, population 9,268 without even a daily or weekly news or semi-weekly newspaper of its own.
Plaintiff Damron was a small town politician and garage man.
He was Mayor of the Municipality of Crystal River, population 1,523 and a candidate to succeed himself.
He was also practically a full-time candidate for county tax assessor, politicking for that job while his brother James Damron ran his garage.
In the middle of the election campaign for county tax assessor, and of course, he was continuously running for re-election as mayor and was subsequently defeated.
The defendant Ocala Star-Banner, the daily newspaper in a nearby Marion County, ran the offending article.
In the article, it was stated, erroneously, that Leonard Damron rather than his brother had had a case continued which was an indictment for perjury in the federal court in the civil rights case.
Now, if there was anything that was of more public interest in the rural South in April 1966 than civil rights, it was an indictment for perjury of a Damron in a civil rights case.
Now, the article was written by a man named Myer, who just recently come to this position with the Ocala paper.
He had never even met the plaintiff, but he had written a number of articles about the political goings on in Crystal River where there two factions and the plaintiff was the head of one of them.
And when the story was phoned in to him, the reporter phoned in the correct name of James Damron, but the area editor had heard so much about and had written so much about this politician brother that throw an error, he just automatically wrote down the wrong name and that's how the name of Leonard got in rather than James.
Leonard then brought a suit for libel and he specifically alleged and I quote from his complaint “that he was a public officer being elected to the office of mayor of Crystal River and a candidate for the office of tax assessor of Citrus County.”
Then, he charged that the words of the article imputed perjury and again I quote his exact words “to the electorate of Crystal River and Citrus County.”
He then went on to allege that the article was published in the middle of the election campaign and cost him the election and he concluded by claiming damages to his reputation as a “public officer and candidate for public office.”
He didn't even alleged malice in his complaint.
The word malice doesn't appear in it, even though the Court did submit the issue of malice on punitive damages.
Warren E. Burger:
What's the significance of your position there?
In Florida pleading must they allege --
Harold B. Wahl:
Malice in a libel suit, yes sir, certainly, under New York Times, you'd have to allege malice.
The newspaper moved to dismiss the complaint because of the failure to allege malice and moved to strike the public figure damages where he was claiming damages to him as mayor and as candidate for public office.
Both motions were denied. The case came on for trial and the Court, as I say, actually instructed the jury to bring in a verdict on community -- on compensatory damages, the only question being the amount of dollars.
Plaintiff testified that he had been defeated for county tax assessor.