familiar with the Cradle incident (and, in view of the exceptionally large amount of publicity that incident had generated, this undoubtedly includes a large number of people) understood that the article was referring to the Cradle case, and therefore to these plaintiffs as among the night-stick wielders.
Plaintiffs contend that the article is false and misleading in that, in effect, it charges plaintiffs with mistreating Mr. Cradle, yet fails to mention the fact that they were acquitted of all charges in connection with the case.
The defendant's principal contention on that score is that the article was not intended to, and does not, deal with the actions of specific police officers. The principal thrust of the article was to convey the atmosphere which formed the background of the Justice Department litigation. The only relevance of the Cradle incident was Mayor Rizzo's alleged reaction to the initial charges.
It is, I believe, perfectly understandable that the plaintiffs, having endured the ordeal of a highly publicized criminal trial at which they were exonerated by the jury, would take umbrage when, two years later, the entire episode again found its way into print. But the plaintiffs' own evidence establishes that no statement in the Post article is actually false. The civilian witnesses were unquestionably shocked and horrified; there were at least nine police officers involved in the incident; there was a violent struggle; and at least one night stick was used. Plaintiffs do strongly dispute the assertion that excessive force was used, that more than one night stick was employed, and that all ten officers beat Mr. Cradle. But it is agreed that these three plaintiffs all used physical force against Cradle. Indeed, in a pretrial deposition in this case, the plaintiff Casper admitted that he struck Cradle with his night stick, after Cradle emerged from the vehicle. (The testimony of all of the officers at the criminal trial, and of the other plaintiffs at this trial, was that Casper had only used his night stick to break the window of Cradle's car.)
The only real question is whether the article is rendered defamatory by the omission of the fact that the officers were later acquitted of criminal charges. In my view, the article is not thereby rendered actionable. The criminal case is not mentioned at all. Inclusion of the information that three of the officers were indicted for violating Cradle's constitutional rights, but acquitted, was irrelevant to that particular story, and would not have placed the officers in any better light in the public mind. Police officers can use excessive force in subduing a suspect without being guilty of the federal offense charged. When one considers that the entire incident was precipitated by an alleged traffic violation for which the police had no right to make an arrest at all, it is difficult to view this article as defamatory in any respect.
Moreover, it is very clear from the plaintiffs' evidence that their real complaint is with the renewed publicity stemming from the Justice Department lawsuit, and not from the Post article itself. The only persons shown to have read the Post article, and to have understood it as applying to these plaintiffs and the Cradle incident, are relatives, friends, or colleagues of the plaintiffs, all of whom share plaintiffs' view that the plaintiffs' actions were proper in all respects.
But the principal reason for dismissing this action is that the evidence totally fails to meet plaintiffs' burden of proving actual malice. There can be no doubt that Mr. Neumann and his partner thoroughly investigated the Cradle incident, and thoroughly and accurately covered the events of the trial. Plaintiffs themselves concede that Neumann sincerely believed, and still believes, that Cradle was mistreated, as Cradle and the civilian witnesses all testified. From plaintiffs' own evidence, it is simply impossible to conclude that the article was written either with actual knowledge of its falsity, or with reckless disregard of the truth. A newspaper and its reporters do not lose their First Amendment protections merely because plaintiffs sincerely believe that they are biased.
The defendant's motion for involuntary dismissal will therefore be granted.
AND NOW, this 19th day of October, 1982, upon consideration of defendant's oral motion for involuntary dismissal, it is hereby ORDERED that said motion is GRANTED.
© 1992-2004 VersusLaw Inc.