Old Dominion Branch No 496, National Association of Letter Carriers v. Austin 8212 1180

Decision Date25 June 1974
Docket NumberAFL-CIO,No. 72,72
PartiesOLD DOMINION BRANCH NO. 496, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF LETTER CARRIERS,, et al., Appellants, v. Henry M. AUSTIN et al. —1180
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

As part of its ongoing efforts to organize the remainder of letter carriers, appellant union, the carriers' collective-bargaining representative in Richmond, Virginia, published a 'List of Scabs' in its newsletter, including the names of appellees, together with a pejorative definition of 'scab' using words like 'traitor.' Appellees brought libel actions. Though recognizing that the case involved the publications of a labor union that were relevant to the union's organizational campaign, the trial court overruled appellants' motions to dismiss based on the ground that the publication had First Amendment and federal labor law protection. The court interpreted Linn v. Plant Guard Workers, 383 U.S. 53, 86 S.Ct. 657, 15 L.Ed.2d 582 to permit application of state libel laws as long as the challenged statements were made with 'actual malice,' defined as being 'actuated by some sinister or corrupt motive such as hatred, personal spite, ill will, or desire to injure the plaintiff . . . or . . . with such gross indifference and recklessness as to amount to a wanton or wilful disregard of the rights of the plaintiff.' The jury awarded appellees damages, and the State Supreme Court affirmed. Held:

1. Although Linn v. Plant Guard Workers, supra, held that federal labor law does not completely pre-empt the application of state laws to libels published during labor disputes, that decision recognized that federal law does pre-empt state law to the extent that the State seeks to make actionable defamatory statements in labor disputes published without knowledge of their falsity or reckless disregard of the truth. Pp. 270—273.

2. Federal labor laws favor uninhibited, robust, and wide-open debate in labor disputes. Pp. 273—279.

(a) The relevant law here is Executive Order No. 11491, governing labor relations in federal employment. The basic provisions of the Executive Order are like those of the National Labor Relations Act, and similarly afford wide latitude for union freedom of speech. The partial pre-emption of Linn is thus equally applicable here. Pp. 273—279.

(b) The free speech protections afforded union organizing efforts extend to post-recognition organizing activity to the same degree as to pre-recognition activity. P. 279.

3. The trial court's instruction defining malice in common-law terms was erroneous and reflected a misunderstanding of Linn, which adopted the reckless-or-knowing-falsehood test of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686. Pp. 280—282.

4. The state libel award arising out of the publication of the union news-letter here did not comport with the protection for freedom of speech in labor disputes recognized in Linn. The use of the epithet 'scab,' which was literally and factually true and is common parlance in labor disputes, was protected under federal law. Publication of the pejorative definition was likewise not actionable, since the use of words like 'traitor' cannot be construed as representations of fact and their use in a figurative sense to manifest the union's strong disagreement with the views of workers opposing unionization is also protected by federal law. Cf. Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing Assn. v. Bresler, 398 U.S. 6, 90 S.Ct. 1537, 26 L.Ed.2d 6. Pp. 282—287.

213 Va. 377, 192 S.E.2d 737, reversed.

Mozart G. Ratner, Washington, D.C., for appellants.

Stephen M. Kapral and Parker E. Cherry, Richmond, Va., for appellees.

Mr. Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case involves three state libel judgments imposing liability of $165,000 on a labor union as a result of statements made in a union newsletter during a continuing organizational drive. The question presented is whether these libel judgments can be squared with the freedom of speech in labor disputes guaranteed under federal law.

I

Appellant Old Dominion Branch No. 496 is a local union affiliated with the appellant National Association of Letter Carriers, AFL-CIO. At all times relevant to this case, the Branch was recognized by postal authorities as the exclusive local collective-bargaining representative of letter carriers in the Richmond, Virginia, area in accordance with § 10 of Executive Order No. 11491, 1 governing labor-management relations in the Executive Branch of the Federal Government. Appellees, Henry M Austin, L. D. Brown, and Roy P. Ziegengeist, were letter carriers in Richmond who neither were members of the Union nor paid any dues or fees to the Union.2

Although it had already been selected as bargaining representative by a majority of the postal workers in the unit, the Branch in the spring of 1970 was engaged in an ongoing effort to organize the remainder of the letter carriers. As part of this campaign, the Branch periodically published in its monthly newsletter, the Carrier's Corner, a list of those who had not yet joined the Union, under the heading 'List of Scabs.' After his name twice appeared in the 'List of Scabs,' appellee Austin complained to the Richmond Postmaster and the President of the Branch that the Union was trying to coerce him into joining. Austin said that he did not know what a scab was, but that he was going to sue the Union if he was called a scab again.

Several weeks later, the June issue of the Carrier's Corner was distributed to Branch members. Once again the newsletter contained a 'List of Scabs,' including the names of the three appellees, as well as 12 others. Just above the list of names, the newsletter noted that '(s)ome co-workers are in a quandary as to what a scab is' and said 'we submit the following.' There followed a well-known piece of trade union literature, generally attributed to author Jack London, which purported to supply a definition:

'The Scab

'After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, He had some awful substance left with which he made a scab.

'A scab is a two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a water brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumor of rotten principles.

'When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and Angels weep in Heaven, and the Devil shuts the gates of hell to keep him out.

'No man (or woman) has a right to scab so long as there is a pool of water to drown his carcass in, or a rope long enough to hang his body with. Judas was a gentleman compared with a scab. For betraying his Master, he had character enough to hang himself. A scab has not.

'Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Judas sold his Savior for thirty pieces of silver. Benedict Arnold sold his country for a promise of a commission in the British Army. The scab sells his birthright, country, his wife, his children and his fellowmen for an unfulfilled promise from his employer.

'Esau was a traitor to himself; Judas was a traitor to his God; Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country; a SCAB is a traitor to his God, his country, his family and his class.'

App. 8—9. (Emphasis supplied.)

Appellees filed these defamation actions against the Branch and the National Association shortly after the June newsletter was published.3 Appellants sought dismissal of the actions on the ground that the publication was protected speech under the First Amendment and under federal labor law. The trial judge recognized that this case involved the 'publications of a labor union which (were) relevant to and in the course of a campaign to organize federal employees.' App. 20. Nevertheless, he overruled the demurrers, interpreting this Court's decision in Linn v. Plant Guard Workers Local 114, 383 U.S. 53, 83 S.Ct. 657, 15 L.Ed.2d 582 (1966), to permit application of state libel laws in such circumstances as long as the statements were made with 'actual malice.' The judge defined 'actual malice' in his instructions to the jury as follows:

'The term 'actual malice' is that conduct which shows in fact that at the time the words were printed they were actuated by some sinister or corrupt motive such as hatred, personal spite, ill will, or desire to injure the plaintiff; or that the communication was made with such gross indifference and recklessness as to amount to a wanton or wilful disregard of the rights of the plaintiff.' App. 93.

The jury returned a verdict awarding each of the appellees $10,000 in compensatory damages and $45,000 in punitive damages.4 The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed. 213 Va. 377, 192 S.E.2d 737 (1972). In view of appellants' substantial claims that their statements in the newsletter were protected expression under the First Amendment and federal labor law, and that the state courts had erred in interpreting the pre-emptive effect of Linn, we noted probable jurisdiction and set this case for oral argument with Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789, 412 U.S. 917, 93 S.Ct. 2731, 37 L.Ed.2d 143 (1973). We reverse.

II

As noted, this case calls upon us to determine the extent to which state libel laws may be applied to penalize statements made in the course of labor disputes without undermining the freedom of speech which has long been a basic tenet of federal labor policy. We do not approach this problem, however, with a clean slate. The Court has already performed the difficult task of reconciling the competing state and federal interests involved in this area, and established the framework for our analysis here, in Linn v. Plant Guard Workers, supra.

In Linn, an assistant general manager of Pinkerton's Detective Agency brought suit under state libel laws against the Plant Guard Workers in a diversity action in federal court. Linn alleged that statements made in a union leaflet during a campaign to organize the company's employees, which...

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