Jury clears Brock in defamation lawsuit Campaign attacks on Aron vindicated

March 13, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Lyle W. Denniston and John Rivera contributed to this article.

In a victory for free speech and free-wheeling political campaigns, William E. Brock defeated Ruthann Aron a second time yesterday when a Maryland jury decided he did not defame her in the 1994 Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.

An Anne Arundel Circuit Court jury of three women and three men found that what he had said about Ms. Aron a week before the primary when he told reporters that juries had "convicted" her of fraud was neither false nor defamatory.

Legal experts and political consultants said an Aron victory might have had a chilling effect on First Amendment guarantees and what candidates could say about their opponents. Indeed, Ms. Aron's lead lawyer, Geoffrey P. Gitner, put jurors on notice the first day of the trial: "We believe this case will set a reference point for future election campaigns."

The jurors emphasized that Ms. Aron's call to strike a blow against negative campaigning was not lost on them. But they said that she had been just as negative as Mr. Brock.

"Maybe there's a way to cut back on all the negative campaigning that's going on, but I don't think this was the case to prove it," said Stacey Beres, a juror from Pasadena.

An ebullient Mr. Brock hugged his lawyers and his wife, Sandra Brock, after the verdict, then stood outside the Annapolis courthouse and proclaimed it a victory for the First Amendment.

"I'm delighted to see the system still works," he said. "It's an affirmation of free speech, an affirmation for people who say we don't want to see our elections settled in court."

The verdict was in line with a long series of court decisions protecting public debate.

In 1964, in the New York Times vs. Sullivan, the Supreme Court wrote that the First Amendment reflected America's "profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials."

The decision, the Supreme Court's first on the First Amendment and libel, also said that it was unconstitutional to make it a crime to criticize public officials.

After yesterday's verdict, a subdued Ms. Aron conferred with her lawyer in a courthouse hallway. She appeared stunned.

"We tried to bring cleaner campaigning back to the people and tried to bring honesty back into the system," she said. "I can only say that I'm very disappointed."

Ms. Aron filed suit against Mr. Brock the day after he lost the November 1994 general election to Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, alleging that Mr. Brock defamed her when he told reporters at a Sept. 7, 1994, news conference that juries had "convicted" her of fraud.

She also alleged that he defamed her with his radio and DTC television commercials saying she had "trouble obeying the law" and that courts had found her guilty of "wrongdoing."

Ms. Aron, a Montgomery County lawyer and developer, had been found liable by juries in two civil suits filed by former business partners. The judgments were set aside and she agreed to pay settlements totaling about $300,000.

After six hours of deliberations, the jury announced that it found nothing false in Mr. Brock's statements or in the commercials.

"Basically what he [Mr. Brock] said, in essence, was the truth," said Ms. Beres. "She was convicted, but the verdicts were vacated."

The jurors said Ms. Aron goaded Mr. Brock into saying that she had been convicted by showing up at his Rockville news conference to attack him.

"He was provoked," said juror Harmon Bullard, an executive with Motorola Inc. The month-long trial gave jurors an insider's view of the Byzantine workings of a high-stakes political campaign, with testimony by a number of political consultants and media experts. T. Joseph Touhey, Mr. Brock's lawyer, showed the jurors an enlarged verdict sheet from the 1984 lawsuit against Ms. Aron over a land transaction. It clearly shows a box, next to the word "fraud," checked off.

Using two television screens, Ms. Aron's lawyer, Mr. Gitner, replayed more than a dozen times a TV report about the Brock news conference. Transcripts from Mr. Brock's commercials were enlarged and placed on poster board. Mr. Gitner also presented to jurors several internal documents from Mr. Brock's campaign, including phone records, calendar datebooks and memos.

A July 15, 1994, memo from one Brock aide warned that Mr. Brock a former U.S. senator from Tennessee, Republican Party chairman and secretary of labor could become a "laughingstock" if he lost to the political neophyte. Another memo written six weeks later advised him to "take Aron down a peg" in his campaign commercials.

Jurors initially were divided 4-2 in favor of Mr. Brock, but reached unanimity after looking up words like "convicted" and "guilty" in dictionaries during the trial.

Byron L. Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said that had the verdict favored Ms. Aron, some politicians might become a little more careful about their rhetoric.

"I think a judgment for the plaintiff would have a chilling effect on candidates," he said. "But I think that a lot of individuals would probably believe . . . that if there were a chilling effect on candidates, that might be a good thing and not a bad thing."

Michael Meyerson, a constitutional law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said one result of the verdict may be that political candidates will be less likely to file such libel suits. "The courts are not an appropriate place for resolving whom to believe in a political dispute," he said. "That's for the voters to decide."

Pub Date: 3/13/96

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