Waldo v. Journal Co.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin
Citation172 N.W.2d 680,45 Wis.2d 203
Docket NumberNo. 9,9
PartiesGrant D. WALDO et al., Appellants, v. The JOURNAL CO., a Wis. corporation, et al., Respondents.
Decision Date19 December 1969

The plaintiffs in this libel action, Grant D. Waldo, an attorney in Milwaukee, Manual Gottlieb, a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Joseph T. Petska, the executive secretary of the Milwaukee County Property Owners Association, initiated a taxpayers' suit in the circuit court for Milwaukee county on April 1, 1965, seeking a declaratory judgment regarding the constitutionality of various provisions of the Urban Redevelopment Law, which permitted municipal governments to grant redevelopment corporations limited term property tax exemptions on large construction projects. The city of Milwaukee, as defendant in that case, demurred to the complaint.

On December 14, 1965, the circuit court for Milwaukee county sustained the city's demurrer and dismissed the case, finding that the law was constitutional. 1

On December 15, 1965, the Milwaukee Journal published the following editorial:

'Big Victory Over Blight

'Circuit court validation of the assessment freeze law, the most serviceable and efficient single weapon in Milwaukee's downtown blight fight, is a great relief to city hall and should give the community great satisfaction.

'The challenging suit, started six years after the city began using the law, was a sort of nuisance action, apparently meant to harass the city administration, in part at least. It almost had to turn out as it did, yet it made a nervous interlude. Its effect may be desirable anyway if it now silences lingering doubters and complainers and spurs more enthusiastic use of the law.

'The central issue was over the state constitutional provision that 'the rule of taxation must be uniform.' Judge Leo Hanley has affirmed that this permits reasonable classification of taxpayers and different provisions for different classes, so long as the rule is uniform within each class. And he finds it reasonable to classify private redevelopers who contribute major replacements of blight with modernity and high tax base, in a way that the freeze makes possible.

'The most compelling argument of Deputy City Atty. Harry Slater was that such a redeveloper is being induced to serve a public purpose, which the city would need to serve with public funds directly if he didn't. The corporation that he must form for the purpose is under such stringent city control of its management and profits that it is almost a public service agency during the freeze period. This is the 'quid pro quo,' the tit for tat, that makes the freeze a proper stroke of business, not a giveaway.

'The challengers had argued that other methods of blight fighting were available, and that not everybody can meet the qualifications for freeze projects. Slater correctly retorted that these were merely expressions of personal preference for something different, they were not judicial issues, and the forum for seeking changes in the law and public policy was the legislature.

'Another assessment freeze law that the city is using to advantage is for firms forced to move by public projects like freeways; it is an inducement to relocate within the city in new and bigger quarters. This was not involved in the Hanley decision but the rationale is reassuring about its validity, too. Surely this law, too, makes a reasonable classification and serves a public interest.' (Emphasis added.)

Subsequently, on December 14, 1967, the plaintiffs commenced the instant action alleging that the italicized portion of the above editorial libeled each of them separately. Defendants demurred to the complaint and the trial court sustained the demurrer and dismissed the complaint without leave to plead over. The plaintiffs appeal.

Stan T. Pelecky, Grant D. Waldo, Milwaukee, for appellants.

Foley, Sammond & Lardner, Milwaukee, for respondents.

WILKIE, Justice.

One issue is dispositive of this appeal. It is whether the language complained of could reasonably be construed in its proper context as being dafamatory to the plaintiffs.

We must first consider whether the language complained of is defamatory within the meaning of the Restatement test which this court has often quoted with approval: 2

'A communication is defamatory if it tends so to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.' 3

To sustain the demurrer, it must be determined as a matter of law that the language complained of is incapable, under the circumstances pleaded, of harming the reputation of the plaintiffs as defined within the above-quoted test. 4

In determining whether the language complained of is defamatory, the words must be reasonably interpreted and must be construed in the plain and popular sense in which they were used and the circumstances under which they were uttered. 5 The demurrer only admits that the words were published as alleged, not the meaning which the plaintiffs have given to them. 6

This court has said:

'If the alleged communication is capable of a defamatory meaning, the demurrer must be overruled; and if the language is of such a character that it is capable of a nondefamatory meaning as well as a defamatory meaning, then a jury question is presented whether such communication was understood in fact in a defamatory sense by the persons to whom it was published. * * * If the communication cannot reasonably be considered defamatory or to be so understood, the demurrer must be sustained.' 7

As is often true in cases such as this, the difficulty is not so much to ascertain the law as correctly to apply it.

The plaintiffs contend that the editorial was libelous to them in two respects: (1) By characterizing their taxpayers' suit as '* * * a sort of nuisance action, apparently meant to harass the city administration, in part at least,' and (2) by referring to the silencing of 'lingering doubters and complainers * * *.'

Appellants and respondent agree that the editorial must be considered as a whole in determining whether the language contained therein is defamatory. 8 Considering the entire editorial here, it is difficult to understand how any defamatory meaning could be ascribed to the words objected to. In fact, even considering the words alone, they would not appear to be defamatory notwithstanding the detailed and involved definition and derivation of the words 'nuisance' and 'harass' as set out in the plaintiffs' briefs.

The trial court, in sustaining the demurrer, said, inter alia:

'The comment in the second paragraph that the suit was 'a sort of nuisance action' is an expression of opinion of the writer about the suit, namely, that he didn't think it had great merit. A 'nuisance' is ordinarily and in a popular sense thought of as something being irritating and a 'nuisance suit' as one having little value but nonetheless an irritant. * * * The Judge had just ruled that the facts alleged in the complaint (in the taxpayers' suit) were not sufficient to constitute a...

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    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Wisconsin
    • July 3, 2000
    ...lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.'" Waldo v. Journal Co., 45 Wis.2d 203, 207, 172 N.W.2d 680 (1969) (quoting Restatement of Torts § 559 Whether a communication is capable of a defamatory meaning is a question of law ......
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    ...that a media defendant's attributing nuisance suits to a plaintiff did not constitute actionable libel). See also Waldo v. Journal Co., 45 Wis.2d 203, 172 N.W.2d 680 (1969). There, the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's dismissal of plaintiffs' libel complaint which alleged ......
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    ...75 Wis.2d 4, 7, 248 N.W.2d 487 (1977).FN2 Polzin v. Helmbrecht, 54 Wis.2d 578, 582-83, 196 N.W.2d 685 (1972).FN3 Waldo v. Journal Co., 45 Wis.2d 203, 207-08, 172 N.W.2d 680 (1969).FN4 Also see Polzin v. Helmbrecht, supra, n.2.3 "It is not necessary that the charge be made in technical langu......
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