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Law School Case Brief

Ward v. Zelikovsky - 136 N.J. 516, 643 A.2d 972 (1994)

Rule:

Whether the meaning of a statement is susceptible of a defamatory meaning is a question of law for the court. In determining whether the statements are defamatory, the court must consider the content, verifiability, and context of the challenged statements. 

Facts:

Defendant, Johanan Zelikovsky, and plaintiffs, Mary and Charles Ward, own condominiums in the Ocean Club condominium association, a complex of 725 units. They attended a board meeting of the condominium association. During the meeting, Mr. Ward addressed the Board on a topic relating to the business of the condominium. While Mr. Ward was speaking, Mrs. Ward stood to add her comments. Mrs. Ward testified that at that moment Zelikovsky, who was seated a few rows in front of her, "jumped up and said, 'Don't listen to these people. They don't like Jews. She's a ***. I remember her. She's a ***.'" The Wards filed suit against Zelikovsky for slandering them at the condominium association meeting and sought special, compensatory and punitive damages. The trial court instructed the jury that special damages were a prerequisite to recovery. The jury found that appellees had suffered minimal general damages and awarded punitive damages. The appellate division affirmed the trial court's judgment and expanded the traditional categories of slander per se to include imputations of racial or ethnic bigotry. 

Issue:

Were the statements of the defendant defamatory?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The court held that the law of defamation existed to achieve the proper balance between protecting reputation and protecting free speech. The court noted that under federal constitutional law, an accusation of racism was non-actionable. The court noted that even if the words were defamatory rather than merely insulting, appellee would still be required to prove special damages. The court held that the trend should be toward the elimination not expansion of the per se categories. Judgment was reversed and the case was remanded with directions to dismiss. Defendant's language was extremely repulsive and hateful and undoubtedly caused the Wards great embarrassment. It was not, however, defamatory, nor did the Wards prove that the statements caused ascertainable damage to their reputation. There is a regrettable rudeness in our society today. Social and public discourse is marked by uncivility and boorishness. Nonetheless, as society has evolved, social attitudes toward judicial review of speech have changed. As a society we have made a determination that the best way to combat bias and prejudice is through the exchange of ideas and speech, not through lawsuits.

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