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Defamation

C. The district court in this case completely excised the jury’s role, a position it could take only on the assumption that the publication unambiguously carried no defamatory meaning. Since the court did not spell out its reasons, the defendants in their briefs have attempted to articulate the rationale for the holding below. The defendants argue that the article did not ‘hurt’ Belli as an attorney, did not imply that he was ‘losing his touch with demonstrative evidence’, did not affect his ability to ‘obtain those ‘more adequate awards’ for seamen and railroad workers for which he is so justly famous’. In effect, so the argument runs, the article was nothing more than caustic comment on the acuteness of the Florida Bar Association. Belli simply ‘showed the Florida lawyers that their agreement was somewhat more favorable to him that they– in their naiveté– contemplated’. In its harshest sense, they say, ‘the article implies no more than that Mr. Belli ‘put one over’ on the Florida Bar’, which is ‘not quite the same as conning a destitute widow out of her homestead’. In short, Mr. Belli just got ‘a little more out of the agreement than the Bar Association contemplated’.

The defendants make a case– just barely– for the view that the article is capable of being reasonably interpreted as non-defamatory. But since the article on its face is also capable of carrying a defamatory meaning, it is for the jury to decide whether the words were in fact so understood. The plaintiff contends, in his brief, ‘No person reading the headline and the article sub judice * * * could conclude other than that Melvin Belli, both as a lawyer and as a private citizen is grasping, conniving, contemptible, dishonest; a cheat, swindler, trickster, deceiver, defrauder; a person to be avoided, shunned and distrusted.’ Without benefit of the defendants’ cavalier reading of the article or the plaintiff’s retort hyperbolic, we consider that the bare bones of the article are capable of carrying the meaning that Belli tricked and deceived the Florida Bar Association out of hundreds of dollars worth of clothes.

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