Appeal from order of Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, No. 71-5640, in case of William C. Redding v. John M. Carlton and Genevieve Carlton, his wife.
Roger B. Reynolds, Jr., for appellant.
Jeffrey M. Stopford, with him Beasley, Hewson, Casey, Kraft & Colleran, for appellees.
Wright, P. J., Watkins, Jacobs, Hoffman, Spaulding, Cercone, and Packel, JJ. Opinion by Hoffman, J.
[ 223 Pa. Super. Page 138]
Appellant contends that the trial court erred in this libel action by granting appellees' demurrer on the grounds that appellees' publications were not actionable per se in that they were not capable of a defamatory meaning.*fn1
In late 1970, Perkiomen Township officials began discussing the purchase of the proposed site for the new township headquarters. During these discussions, appellant was both a township supervisor and the owner of property situated in the vicinity of the proposed site.
Appellees launched a campaign to prevent the purchase of the site. The campaign consisted of letter writing, newspaper advertising, circular distribution, and conversations with township officials. The appellees alleged that appellant's dual role as township supervisor and property owner constituted a "conflict of interests at the very least, and perhaps much more." The allegations charged that the appellant and another township official owned land adjoining the proposed site. In fact, appellant's land was located near, but not adjacent to the aforesaid site.
Remodeling costs for the proposed site were estimated at $5000. In a letter to the supervisors, appellees asserted that said estimate was deliberately misleading as remodeling costs would be far greater. The letter did not indicate the party responsible for setting the estimate. A circular distributed publicly did charge the supervisors with estimating the remodeling costs,
[ 223 Pa. Super. Page 139]
but the circular did not accuse the supervisors of deliberately misleading the public.
The lower court held that these publications were not capable of a defamatory meaning. Whether or not language can reasonably be construed as being defamatory is a matter of law. Clark v. Allen, 415 Pa. 484, 487, 204 A.2d 42 (1964); Kernick v. Dardanell, 428 Pa. 288, 295, 236 A.2d 191 (1967); Corabi v. Curtis Publishing Co., 441 Pa. 432, 442, 273 A.2d 899 (1971). Free speech would be endangered if innocuous statements were found capable of possessing a defamatory meaning. Thus, in deciding whether or not a publication is defamatory, courts should be guided by America's profound "commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." New York Times Company v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270 (1964). The constitutionally protected area of free speech revolves around the freedom to criticize government and the officials responsible for government operations. Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 85 (1966). To prevent a chilling effect on free speech, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has held that "statements which represent differences of opinion or are annoying or embarrassing, are without more not libelous." ...