Mahnke v. Northwest Publications, Inc.

Decision Date31 May 1968
Docket NumberNo. 40745,40745
Citation160 N.W.2d 1,280 Minn. 328
PartiesWilliam L. MAHNKE, Respondent, v. NORTHWEST PUBLICATIONS, INC., Appellant.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Syllabus by the Court

1. It was determined in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686, 95 A.L.R.2d 1412, that the constitutional guarantees require a Federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with 'actual malice'--that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. A like rule had been adopted by this state long before that decision.

2. There is sufficient evidence from which the jury could conclude that the statements claimed by plaintiff to be false were in fact false; that defendant was negligent in publishing the article; and that defendant published it with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.

3. The trial court's instructions correctly stated the applicable rules of law.

4. What constitutes a 'reckless disregard' of whether the statements relating to plaintiff in the article published by defendant were false was clearly a jury question.

Oppenheimer, Hodgson, Brown, Wolff & Leach, and David C. Donnelly, St. Paul, for appellant.

Erickson, Popham, Haik & Schnobrich, and Rolfe A. Worden, Minneapolis, for respondent.


NELSON, Justice.

In this action for libel, defendant, Northwest Publications, Inc., appeals from an order denying its motion for judgment n.o.v. or a new trial. Plaintiff, William L. Mahnke, was awarded a verdict of $3,000 general damages plus $1,000 punitive damages.

Defendant is the owner and publisher of two daily St. Paul newspapers, the St. Paul Dispatch and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Plaintiff was and is a detective captain with the Minneapolis Police Department. The libel for which plaintiff recovered was contained in the following article, which appeared in the 'Sunset Final' edition of the St. Pual Dispatch January 21, 1960:


'A Minneapolis Catholic priest today demanded an official reprimand for one of that city's detective captains because he said the Police official had refused to arrest a man involved in a serious childmolesting case.

'Involved in the complaint, which he said he would 'carry to the governor if necessary,' are Father Thomas F. Meagher, executive director of the Catholic Welfare association, and William L. Mahnke, one of four Minneapolis police department detective captains.

'Father Meagher said the case was brought to his attention by a parish priest to whom a woman complained that her husband was sexually molesting their 6-year-old daughter. A doctor examined the girl and verified the molesting.

"It was the worst case of incest ever to come to my attention,' Father Meagher said.

'Father Meagher who also serves as Catholic chaplain for Hennepin district and Minneapolis municipal courts, sent the mother and child to police. Statements were taken from them by the department's sex squad. Detective William Quady then sought permission from Captain Mahnke to arrest the father.

'Rev. Meagher said Mahnke 'flew into a rage' when he learned the woman had discussed the case with her parish priest before coming to police and Accused her of 'trying to get even with her husband.'

"Mahnke told her there was no case and refused to send out detectives to make the arrest,' Father Meagher said today. 'I don't believe police officials should be allowed To set themselves up as judges and juries in the face of such evidence.'

'When the woman returned and told Father Meagher what had happened, he complained to another detective captain, Calvin Hawkinson, who had the father arrested. The father later gave a statement admitting that he had sexually molested the child and is being held in the city jail pending filing of charges, Father Meagher said.

'The Catholic official carried his complaint of the woman's treatment to Chief of Police Milton E. Winslow, Mayor Peterson and the city's civil service commission.

"I don't care what Mahnke's punishment is,' he said today, 'but he is going to get an official reprimand if I have to carry the matter to the governor.'

'He refused to be calmed by Chief Winslow's comment that the affair was only a 'misunderstanding or error of judgment' and refused to participate in a meeting the chief was seeking to arrange between Mahnke, the woman and Father Meagher.

"I'll be happy to have the woman tell her story to the chief,' the priest said, 'but I won't be involved in a roundtable discussion with Mahnke. This is a serious matter and should be handled as such.'

'Mahnke could not be reached for comment.' (Italics supplied.)

Plaintiff claimed that the italicized portions of the above article were false.

If all conflicts in the evidence are resolved in favor of plaintiff as the prevailing party below, the facts appear to be as follows: On January 15, 1960, Byron Blake, his sister, Mrs. June Spahr, and her 6-year-old daughter went to the Minneapolis Police Department. The daughter had told her mother that her father had been molesting her. The Reverend Thomas F. Meagher, who was executive director of the Catholic Welfare Association and who served also as Catholic chaplain for Hennepin County District Court and the Minneapolis municipal court, sent the mother and child to the police. Upon their arrival, Detective William T. Quady and a policewoman interviewed the mother and daughter, and the policewoman took statements from them. A physician had examined the daughter and had given a written report which apparently failed to support the claim of molesting.

Detective Quady had authority to have the father arrested. He had doubts at the time whether the available evidence would support a valid arrest, so he consulted with plaintiff at approximately 6:15 p.m. of that day, relating to plaintiff the information available. They then called an assistant county attorney, Ronald Meshbesher, to ask if he would authorize an arrest. Meshbesher said he would not do so under the circumstances and suggested that detectives be sent to the home to interview the father in order to develop either an admission or some further evidence which would support an arrest.

After this talk with Meshbesher, plaintiff and Detective Quady talked to Mrs. Spahr and her brother, Byron Blake. Both of them wanted the husband arrested. In accordance with the suggestion made by the assistant county attorney, plaintiff told Detective Quady that he should go out to the Spahr residence and question the father. At that point the brother asked if the police could absolutely guarantee that they would arrest Spahr if they went out to the house. Blake believed that Spahr had been drinking and could be abusive to the family and he did not want Spahr contacted if he were not then arrested. Plaintiff explained to both Blake and Mrs. Spahr that such a guarantee could not be made. Mrs. Spahr and her brother then requested that detectives not be sent to the house to interview the father. When Mrs. Spahr indicated that her husband's driver's license had been suspended, a plan was devised to arrest him the next day when he would be driving his automobile, and Detective Quady prepared a directive to this effect. The plan was that after making an arrest for the driving offense the police would question Spahr with respect to the charge of molesting his daughter.

After these plans were made, plaintiff ascertained that Mrs. Spahr and her daughter could safely return to their home. The meeting between the parties, which had lasted about 1 1/2 hours, then came to an end.

The record is clear that during the course of the meeting plaintiff did not refuse to arrest Spahr; Detective Quady did not seek permission from plaintiff to arrest Spahr; plaintiff did not fly into a rage or express any anger; he did not accuse the mother of trying to get even with her husband; he did not tell her there was no case; he did not refuse to send out detectives to make an arrest; and he did not express an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of the father, although in fact his personal opinion was that the man was guilty. Evidence was also presented showing that plaintiff was available to the writer of the newspaper article for comment.

The article was published January 21, 1960, some 6 days after the event reported.

The record indicates that plaintiff was not on duty January 16, the day following the meeting. However, at approximately 2:30 p.m. that day Detective Captain Calvin F. Hawkinson, then on duty, telephoned plaintiff and said that he had received a call from Father Meagher asking about the status of the Spahr matter. Plaintiff indicated surprise because of the plan that had been made the previous evening and asked if the man had not been arrested. Plaintiff then outlined to Captain Hawkinson the problems with the case as they had appeared the previous evening and said that Captain Hawkinson would have to use his judgment in the further handling of the matter.

It appears that Father Meagher informed Captain Hawkinson that he had talked to the doctor who had examined the child and that the doctor told him that the child's female organs were red and irritated--medical information that apparently did not appear on the report which the police had received the previous night. Captain Hawkinson also wanted some legal advice as to whether an arrest could be made. After obtaining the opinions of two assistant county attorneys, Bruce Stone and Chester Durda, that sufficient probable cause existed to arrest the father, he ordered Spahr's arrest. Arrested during the afternoon, Spahr subsequently admitted the offense with which he was then charged.

Max (Mickey) Schwartz, a reporter working at the rewrite desk for the St. Paul Dispatch January 21, 1960,...

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