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GEORGE L. WHITTEN, W. H. TATUM, JR., & WILBURN GREGORY v. COMMERCIAL DISPATCH PUBLISHING COMPANY

APRIL 30, 1986

GEORGE L. WHITTEN, W. H. TATUM, JR., & WILBURN GREGORY
v.
COMMERCIAL DISPATCH PUBLISHING COMPANY, INC.



BEFORE PATTERSON, C.J., DAN LEE & ROBERTSON, JJ.

PATTERSON, CHIEF JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:

This is a libel action against Commercial Dispatch Publishing Company for the publication of a newspaper article which contained an erroneous headline. The Circuit Court of Lowndes County dismissed the complaint for failure to

state a cause of action upon which relief could be granted.

 In November, 1981, George Whitten, W. H. Tatum, Jr., and Wilburn Gregory pled guilty to federal misdemeanor charges of transferring cattle from Alabama to Mississippi without having the animals tested for brucellosis bacterial disease. The incident was reported in the November 13, 1981 issue of The Commercial Dispatch newspaper and read as follows:

 THREE PLEAD GUILTY IN CATTLE THEFTS.

 Oxford - Three Mississippi men have pleaded guilty to federal charges of illegally transferring cattle from Alabama to Alcorn and Tippah Counties.

 Officers said Wilburn Gregory, George L. Whitten and W. L. Tatum, all of Alcorn County, were charged with moving the 112 head of cattle from Red Bay, Alabama, to Mississippi without having the animals tested for brucellosis, bacterial disease.

 The three face sentencing November 30, for the misdemeanor crime.

 The newspaper article as published had an erroneous headline followed by a correct text. It is undisputed that none of the men were involved in, nor did they plead guilty to, a cattle theft.

 The complaints in this cause alleged the publication was libelous per se and made maliciously or negligently with a reckless disregard for the truth. Commercial Dispatch denied the publication was done maliciously or negligently, and pled as an affirmative defense that it was entitled to a qualified privilege in connection with the publication because it was a report of litigation or judicial proceedings.

 The lower court dismissed the complaints holding that the headline and the body of the article must be read together, and as such the article was a fair statement of the court proceedings and therefore protected by the qualified privilege granted to newspapers. We are of the opinion the dismissal was error.

 We recognize the two competing interests at stake in cases involving allegations of libelous newspaper

 publications. We confront the interests of each individual in protecting his reputation, and the constitutionally guaranteed First Amendment rights of the publisher. The Supreme Court has accommodated both interests by defining the appropriate standards of liability for a defamatory falsehood according to the plaintiff's status as either a private individual or public figure. In Gertz v. Welch, 418 U.S. 323, 94 S. Ct. 2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974), the court held the First and Fourteenth Amendments require at a minimum a showing of negligence before a private figure may recover an award of actual damages for libel; a public figure must show actual malice, defined as ill will or reckless disregard of the falsity of the statements made.

 We need not address the question of whether the newspaper article published by Commercial Dispatch Publishing Co. was defamatory as to the plaintiffs. Our inquiry is limited to whether the lower court properly dismissed this cause on the pleadings, and to this end we focus ...


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