Brief Fact Summary. The Defendant, Orlando Daily Newspapers, Inc. (Defendant), published an article claiming that the Plaintiff, Belli (Plaintiff), an attorney, took advantage of an agreement with the Florida Bar Association (the Association), charging a large clothing bill to the Association. The article was false, and Plaintiff brought a defamation suit.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. If the meaning of an article is capable of two interpretations, one being defamatory and the other not, it is for the jury to determine the meaning of the article based on all of the evidence.
Issue. Was the District Court correct that the determination of whether a statement is a libel or slander per se is solely for the court?
Held. No. Judgment reversed and remanded.
* When a publication is false and not privileged and is such that its natural and proximate consequence necessarily causes an injury to a person in his personal, social, official, or business relations or life, wrong and injury are assumed and the publication is actionable per se. If the meaning is so unambiguous as to only reasonably bear one interpretation, it is for the judge to say if the meaning is defamatory or not. If the meaning is capable of multiple interpretations, it is for the jury to determine the meaning, considering al the circumstances.
* Defendant’s claimed that the article did not hurt Plaintiff in his profession because the article only showed that the agreement was more favorable to Plaintiff than to the Association. Based on this argument, Defendant is barely able to make a case that the article could be interpreted as non-defamatory.
* Plaintiff contends that the article portrays him as having committed trickery and deception against the Association. This portrayal has negative implications toward Plaintiff’s profession. This Court agrees that the article had the capability of carrying a defamatory meaning. Regardless, First Amendment constitutional rights of free press impel the Court to not place itself in the role of the jury. Therefore, the final determination should have been made by the jury.
Discussion. The Court in this case felt that the facts strongly suggested the article was defamatory, but refused to exercise the role of the jury due to First Amendment constitutional considerations.