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Defamation

The story alleges: (1) Belli knew that the Florida Bar Association’s budget would enable him to be reimbursed only for his hotel bill; (2) subject to this limitation he agreed to participate in a panel discussion; (3) he deliberately planned to ‘take’ the Association for hundreds of dollars by charging clothing purchases to his hotel bill; (4) he and his well-dressed wife left Miami before the Association found out about their purchases; (5) the Association, to its embarrassment, had to pick up the tab. ‘The Florida Bar had been taken. * * * After all that was the plan.’ The author’s comment seems intended to insure the common reader’s understanding of what purportedly happened. The common reader is likely to understand ‘take’, just as Miss Yothers must have understood it. A recent dictionary defines it: ‘To cheat, deceive’; [FN] [O]ther dictionaries agree with this definition.[FN: See, for example, [one dictionary] which defines ‘been taken’ as To have been taken advantage of, deceived, cheated or tricked, overcharged, sold misrepresented merchandise; swindled’, or [another dictionary] which defines one of the meanings of the word ‘take’ as ‘to impose upon, CHEAT, SWINDLE’.].

The man in the street is likely to understand that hotel expenses do not include ‘hundreds of dollars worth of clothing’. But any doubts the reader might have as to what purportedly happened are likely to be resolved by the reference to Belli’s ‘plan’ to ‘take’ the Florida Bar. We hold that a jury might reasonably conclude that the conduct imputed to Belli was incompatible with the standards of an ethical lawyer and as such violated one of the four traditional categories of libel per se. A jury might also conclude that such conduct subjected Belli to contempt and ridicule humiliating him socially and injuring him professionally.

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