Weaver v. Pryor Jeffersonian

Decision Date20 September 1977
Docket NumberNo. 46635,46635
Citation569 P.2d 967,1977 OK 163
Parties3 Media L. Rep. 1425 Glen H. "Pete" WEAVER, Appellant, v. The PRYOR JEFFERSONIAN, a Newspaper Publishing Corp., Haskell Gaither and Haskell Lee Gaither, Appellees.
CourtOklahoma Supreme Court

An Appeal from the District Court of Mayes County; William J. whistler, judge.

Appellant, candidate for public office, brought action in libel against weekly newspaper for alleged defamatory "letter to the editor". Trial court sustained appellee's motion for summary judgment under the guidelines of the New York Times Rule. REVERSED AND REMANDED.

Tony Jack Lyons and Gary J. Dean, Lyons & Dean, Pryor, for appellant.

Sam P. Daniel, Jr., G. Michael Lewis, Doerner, Stuart, Saunders, Daniel & Langenkamp, Tulsa, for appellees.

SIMMS, Justice.

Appellant commenced a libel action in the court below predicated upon a "letter to the editor" printed in appellee newspaper. The alleged defamatory publication occurred while appellant was embroiled in what the parties describe as a "bitterly contested" run-off primary election for nomination to the office of Sheriff of Mayes County, Oklahoma.

Appellees moved for summary judgment after depositions had been taken and the pleadings formed. The trial judge sustained appellee's request for summary judgment for the reasons that appellant was a "public figure" within the meaning of Curtis Publishing Company v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 87 S.Ct. 1975, 18 L.Ed.2d 1094 (1967); and the actions of appellant alluded to in the letter published by appellees were performed or allegedly performed while the plaintiff was a "public official" within the parameters of New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686, 95 A.L.R.2d 1412 (1964).

Sustention of summary judgment additionally was predicated upon a "failure of proof that the defendants published the letter with 'actual malice' ". Although the trial court's judgment found the appellees to be negligent, the court determined that the negligence did not rise to the "dignity of reckless disregard of its falsity", and the trial court found no evidence that defendants had reason to suspect the questioned letter was false.

Appeal is taken from the order sustaining motion for summary judgment.

For purposes of this appeal, appellees concede the contents of the published "letter to the editor" to be libelous per se. 1

Appellant contends that even under the New York Times standard, the facts and circumstances of the case at bar raised a fact issue on the question of actual malice or alternatively, publication with reckless disregard of whether the letter was false or not. Appellant concludes the matter was not therefore subject to motion for summary judgment, but rather an issue for the trier of the facts, i. e., the jury.

In its formal order of sustention of summary judgment, the trial court recited that it had examined the files and record in the case. Those files, records, and depositions, now before this Court on appeal, reflect the following pertinent facts.

Appellant had previously served as Sheriff of Mayes County and was seeking to regain that political office by running against the then incumbent Sheriff, who was the brother-in-law of Haskell Gaither, editor-publisher of the defendant weekly newspaper. Haskell Lee Gaither is the son of Haskell, and is managing editor of the Pryor Jeffersonian.

The evening before the Thursday publication of the paper, next preceding the Tuesday run-off election, a Jean Avery personally delivered the questioned hand-written letter to Haskell Lee Gaither at the Jeffersonian premises. When the letter was given to the younger Gaither, he told Jean Avery he would like his dad to go over the letter with him. Jean Avery told Haskell Lee that "I have the papers to back this up." Jean Avery left the Jeffersonian offices after making the quoted statement. Haskell Lee Gaither talked to his father, who "saw nothing wrong with the letter", and thereafter, Haskell Lee Gaither made some punctuation and grammatical corrections in the letter and it was published in the last edition prior to the election.

The depositions of Haskell Gaither and Haskell Lee Gaither indicated that Mrs. Avery was unknown to both. No inquiry was made of Jean Avery as to the existence or contents of the so-called "back-up papers". No reportorial inquiry was made into the alleged "fix" or "favor", nor was there any attempt made to verify or negate any of the allegations contained in the letter. No one ever contacted Pete Weaver about the letter or its allegations before the letter was published.

Other depositions presented to the court on summary judgment reflect apparent hostility of some degree between the Gaithers and Weaver's lawyer, arising prior to publication of the Avery letter. Weaver's lawyer had also represented a Barbara Pierce in divorce litigation. Barbara Pierce entered into a real estate transaction with Weaver which she later determined to be unsatisfactory. After borrowing money elsewhere to satisfy the obligation owing by her to Weaver, Barbara Pierce caused a "letter to the editor" to be written and circulated throughout Mayes County in the form of a handbill. The Pierce letter, in essence, accused Weaver and his lawyer of fraud and misrepresentation in connection with the real estate transaction.

After the Pierce letter was made public, the law partner of Weaver's attorney sent a "confidential" letter to the publishers of both the Pryor Daily Times and the Pryor Jeffersonian. 2

The publishers of the Jeffersonian regarded the letter from the firm employed by Weaver as an attempt to muzzle, suppress, and "control" the newspaper.

Whereupon, the lawyer's letter to the newspapers was published on the front page of the Jeffersonian with a headline reading: "Pryor Legal Firm Threatens Lawsuit". Under the headline, the following print appeared as a prelude to the letter:

"(A highly unusual letter to the editor reached this paper recently. It was so unusual the contents are being printed on page one rather than following the usual format."

And, following, the letter as set out in footnote 2 was published as a front-page item in the Jeffersonian.

An affidavit, executed by both Gaithers in support of their motion for summary judgment acknowledged receipt of the disputed letter to the editor from Avery; that the sheriff's race was hotly contested; that charges and counter-charges had gained wide spread public comment and discussions in the Pryor community; that neither Gaither had any reason to believe or any evidence causing them to suspect the information in the Avery letter was false.

Gaither's amended answer alleges the defamatory words to be true in substance and fact, and that they acted without malice.

On the other hand, Weaver submitted an affidavit stating that the Gaithers held ill will and malice towards his lawyer because of previous litigation, and the lawyer's part ownership in a competition newspaper. Affiant Weaver also concluded that the malice against the attorney was imputed to him by reason of his association with the lawyer.

An additional factor to be taken into consideration in reviewing the trial court's ruling of summary judgment is that in the Jeffersonian issue carrying the Avery letter, there was printed in large type, and in juxtaposition to the Avery letter, another "letter to the editor" purportedly written by one Jane Callison Cowan. The Cowan letter appeared surrounded with black border and the word "NOTICE" appearing at the top in extremely large type. The Cowan letter likewise referred to Weaver, his official conduct, and his association with his law firm. 3

As was the case with the Avery letter, no individual connected with the Jeffersonian made any inquiry into the purported facts reported in the Cowan letter.

However, the deposition of Charles M. Cooper, publisher of the competitor newspaper, The Pryor Daily Times, clearly demonstrates he made an investigation into the allegations of the Cowan letter and found them to be untrue. Cooper's investigation and follow-up newspaper story quoted from actual Court records.

We are not directed to any authority which indicates that a newspapers' duty is any different with regard to a "letter to the editor" written by a third person than is the duty owing from an article written by it's staff. Although not briefed, an important patent question is whether or not a "letter to the editor", published and disseminated by the public news media, may be the foundation for actionable libel.

A "letter to the editor" accusing a university professor of treason was the subject matter of a libel action in El Paso Times, Inc., Petitioner v. Trexler, Texas, 447 S.W.2d 403 (1969). In Trexler, the Texas Court applied the New York Times standard, together with its progeny, to a college professor who had thrust himself into a vortex of public controversy. Trexler concluded that the alleged libelous "letter to the editor" was not actionable as a matter of law because of an absence of any evidence that the defendant newspaper published the letter "with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not". By reason of Trexler we are of the opinion that when the public media re-publishes and circulates a "letter to the editor" which contains libelous statements, such publication may be the subject of an action in libel, subject to the rules of law as hereinafter discussed.

Scrutiny of decisional law governing libel, commencing with New York Times, supra, reveals that the maturation of our libel law has evolved separate but definitive standards for two classes of persons who claim to have been unlawfully defamed, i. e., public figures or public officials, and private individuals.

The standard enunciated in New York Times, as later extended, bars liability for defamation of a "public figure" absent proof that the defamatory statements were published with knowledge...

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  • Woods v. Prestwick House Inc.
    • United States
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    • February 8, 2011
    ...in determining whether media could defend against invasion of privacy claim utilizing fair comment privilege.]; Weaver v. Pryor Jeffersonian, 1977 OK 163, 569 P.2d 967 [Multiple publications of same defamatory letter considered in determining that a fact question existed on the issue of act......
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    ...appropriately. See Hough v. Leonard, 1993 OK 112, ¶¶ 14-16, 867 P.2d 438. This cause is factually different from Weaver v. Pryor Jeffersonian, 1977 OK 163, ¶ 39, 569 P.2d 967, in which we held that the reprint of a libelous letter to the editor could subject the media to defamation damages.......
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