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Libel: In News of Congressional Investigating Committees

Harold L. Nelson
Copyright Date: 1961
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 184
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Libel: In News of Congressional Investigating Committees was first published in 1961. This is a study of a perplexing problem in libel law, that which is involved in the reporting of news of congressional investigating committees. The danger of committing libel is a constant threat to newsmen in their attempt at fair coverage of the activities of these committees. The responsible reporter faces the challenge of reporting such news as fully as the public interest demands while, at the same time, working in a situation of uncertainty as far as libel law is concerned. Professor Nelson seeks to clarify some of the issues in the problem by a close examination of the proceedings of a single committee, the House Un-American Activities Committee. He also illustrates his discussion with examples from the proceedings of other committees, such as those of the McCarthy hearings. The basic question hinges on the concept of “qualified privilege,” the legal protection of immunity from the libel findings in connection with the reporting of “official” proceedings. But which of the committee activities may be construed as official and which as unofficial, in the eyes of the law? This is the nub of the problem, and Professor Nelson’s analysis will, it is hoped, throw light on a shadowy question. The book should prove useful and interesting to lawyers, government officials, and political scientists.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6380-4
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-2)
    (pp. 3-16)

    The United States Senate forsook its tender regard for the secrecy of its deliberations on February 20, 1794, and opened its doors just in time to permit the public gaze to fall upon it in a moment of housekeeping. The view for the public was perhaps neither edifying nor degrading: Senator Albert Gallatin’s seat had been questioned by Pennsylvania citizens who declared he was not entitled to represent the state, by reason of too brief residence, and the Senate was considering whether he might continue to sit. It decided he might not; but that — as Gallatin was to point out...

    (pp. 17-27)

    Years before the word “Communist” had become an epithet to many Americans, newspapers had learned the danger of suggesting that an individual held objectionable economic, political, or social beliefs. The century of the October Revolution had not yet arrived when a false accusation of “anarchist” had been put down by the United States courts as libelous: causing hatred, contempt, or ridicule for the accused.¹ To the ordinary citizen, the courts felt, the anarchist would do away with government by any means, and the charge was so opprobrious as to be libel on its face. The same applied to other terms...

  5. III Committee Proceedings: THE PUBLIC FILES
    (pp. 28-40)

    To begin with the question that agitated reporter Nat Finney, what can be said of the “undigested files” of the Un-American Activities Committee as legislative proceedings? Are they official? Are they public? Could a reporter who wrote his story from materials in these files count on the protection of qualified privilege in case a libel suit ensued? There is little doubt that newsmen sometimes have based stories on materials from these files and from the files of other committees. There seems to be reason to question the files as public and official legislative proceedings.

    The material which the committee has...

  6. IV Committee Proceedings: FILES REPORTS
    (pp. 41-57)

    If only an occasional newsman has direct access to the files of the Un-American Activities Committee — if actual perusal of file folders by reporters is scarcely commonplace — it may be that material from the public files is somewhat more likely to reach nonofficial hands in another way. For hundreds upon hundreds of reports prepared from files material annually issue from the committee environs on committee letterhead. Furthermore, oral reports on the material in the files have at times been made by the committee’s clerical personnel. The question arises whether these reports are official proceedings that furnish a basis for a...

  7. V Committee Proceedings: INVESTIGATIVE REPORTS
    (pp. 58-75)

    Files and files reports of the Un-American Activities Committee — and undoubtedly of other committees — appear to be something less than the outcome of investigation, and thus questionable as official proceedings. But various reports of many committees undoubtedlyarethe outcome of investigation and yet bear scrutiny for the same reason.

    To illustrate that problems of irregular procedure for the newsman arise in many committees besides the Un-American Activities Committee, the work of seven committees and subcommittees is dealt with in this chapter. Wherever committees engage in spectacular and noisy charges, and wherever committees exhibit signs of internecine warfare, the newsman...

  8. VI Committee Proceedings: CREATION OF SUBCOMMITTEES
    (pp. 76-101)

    Newspaper reporters may have relatively little difficulty in recognizing that some committee activities described thus far are questionable as “public and official proceedings.” The so-called public files are on their face rather secret; and Appendix Nine, after all, has been unfamiliar to or scarcely acknowledged by certain leading members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The “public files report” carries on its face a statement that it is “not the outcome of investigation”; the committee investigator’s report may be a document that has not even been presented to the committee. It seems reasonable to think that reporters might be...

  9. VII Committee Proceedings: QUORUM
    (pp. 102-117)

    The courts, then, have not yet ruled clearly about the sufficiency of a subcommittee created irregularly. For some purposes, however, they have ruled as to the sufficiency of a committee that lacks a quorum: it is not a “competent tribunal” where perjury before a committee is the issue. Lack of quorum in a committee when alleged perjury is committed prevents a conviction for that.

    That is not to say that an “incompetent tribunal” for perjury is the same thing as “unofficial proceeding” for qualified privilege in libel. It is rather to say that a rough analogy is available in speculating...

    (pp. 118-134)

    There is relatively little mention of press reports of congressional investigation in the present chapter. It happens that the theory underlying qualified privilege developed in the context of other official activities, and it is these which claim consideration here. Theory, of course, sweeps a range of behavior into its embrace, and is relevant to congressional investigation as it is to other official behavior.

    Uncertainty arises where deviations from the generally accepted rationale providing privilege occur. Deviations have appeared with varying statutes and with varying interpretations by judges of the statutes and of the common law. At times the theory has...

    (pp. 135-138)
  12. Appendix A
    (pp. 141-145)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 146-164)
  14. A Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 165-167)
  15. Index of Cases
    (pp. 168-170)
  16. Subject Index
    (pp. 171-174)