Words charged to be defamatory are to be taken in their natural meaning; they are to be construed as persons generally understand them and according to their ordinary meaning. There can be no question that the ordinary meaning of the term indictment is that of the legal process, usually before a grand jury, whereby a person is formally charged with crime and a criminal prosecution begun.
The columnist wrote an article in which it was stated that the president was "under indictment." In fact, he had never been indicted. In the libel action, defendants asserted a complete defense of truth and a partial defense. They contended that the former president was "under indictment" in a nonlegal sense because he had been accused of various crimes by private individuals. The trial court granted the president's motion to strike both defenses as insufficient in law. The appellate court reversed that decision and held that it was up to a jury to decide in which sense "under indictment" would have been understood by a reader of the article.
Did the appellate court err when it ruled that it was up to a jury to decide in which sense "under indictment" would have been understood by a reader of the article?
After construing the word "indictment" in its ordinary meaning, the court opined that the publication could have reasonably been read and interpreted only as charging that the president had been indicted by a grand jury. Therefore, the complete defense of truth was insufficient. In addition, although the facts that went to make up the partial defense had to tend to prove the truth of the precise charge made by the publication, the facts alleged in the partial defense were unrelated to the truth of the charge that the president was indicted.