Thursday, August 14, 2008
Scott Brings Libel Action Against L.A. Times
By ROGER M. GRACE
Upon joining the team defending two union terrorists charged in connection with the 1910 dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times Building, attorney Joseph Scott became the target of the Times’ wrath.
Coverage of him in connection with that case, as discussed here last week, was brutal.
So was the treatment of him as a member of the Los Angeles City Board of Education on which he had served continuously since 1904.
The April 22, 1913 edition contains an editorial opposing the reelection of Scott and another board member, declaring that they “are not safe guides for youth, not suitable persons to be in charge of our public instruction.
A July 23, 1914, editorial calls for “the resignation of Scott from the board he has disgraced,” commenting:
“For years he has treated with disrespect his colleagues on the board by seeking to do things, behind their backs, the while professing solicitude for the public schools. He has made life miserable for them behind closed doors and upbraided them in open session, all of which they have borne with a fair degree of humility in order to avoid clashes with the ‘temperamentally unfit’ member.”
The time came when Scott hit back. An article of Feb. 6, 1915 reports a divorce action filed by Scott on behalf of the wife. It quotes the husband and the couple’s teenage son as accusing Scott of inciting his client to file the suit notwithstanding a lack of marital discord. Scott sued for libel, seeking $10,000 in actual damages (about $205,000 in today’s dollars) and $50,000 in punitive damages.
A Feb. 14 editorial scoffs:
“Uneasy, not to say luckless, Joe Scott...recently gave mental birth to the curious conceit that The Times was indebted to him in the sum of $60,000 for publishing an alleged libel upon himself; and now he thinks his first demand was not big enough and wants $60,000 more. Joe Scott is wrong again; he never will recover $120,000 or any other sum from The Times on his two complaints for libel.”
On that score, the Times was wrong.
Editorial cartoons customarily relate to significant happenings in the news. The March 15, 1915 issue of the Times contains an editorial cartoon deriding Scott because a judge, more than two weeks earlier, had sustained a demurrer to a second amended complaint he had filed. Scott’s client was challenging the election of a director of an investment company—not a matter of great public concern, but meaningful to the Times since its general manager, Harry Chandler, was the director whose election was being contested.
The cartoon is headed “Nothing But Holes” and a man, holding a document labelled “COURT’S DECISION,” is seen charging atop two horses at a hoop with paper stretched across it that’s riddled with holes. Lettering on it reads: “JOE SCOTT’S COMPLAINT IN L.A. INVESTMENT CO. CASE.”
A Feb. 28 news story on the sustaining of the demurrer bears this appendage (with brackets in the original):
“[Joe, acting as his own attorney, has brought two libel suits against The Times in the past three weeks. Huh!]”
On July 19, a jury awarded him $10,000 in actual damages and $20,000 in punitives. The judge granted the Times a new trial on the grounds that the damages were excessive and testimony of a character witness for Scott was erroneously admitted; Scott appealed; the California Supreme Court on Aug. 6, 1918, affirmed.
At the retrial, the jury on March 10, 1916 awarded Scott $7,500 in actual damages and assessed exemplary damages in the amount of $30,000; the Times appealed; affirmance by the state high court came on Oct. 8, 1919.
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