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Prucha v. Weiss

Decided: February 6, 1964.


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Baltimore City; Jones, J.

Brune, C.J., and Henderson, Prescott, Horney and Sybert, JJ. Horney, J., delivered the opinion of the Court.


The plaintiffs-appellants (Clement J. Prucha and Thomas H. Ward) filed a bill in equity against the defendants-appellees (Harold M. Weiss, the Downtown Civic Association, Inc., and National Photo Press, Inc.) seeking injunctive relief and damages for alleged past and prospective false and malicious preelection statements published and to be published by the appellees against the appellants. Each of the appellees demurred and the chancellor sustained the demurrers on the ground that the court lacked jurisdiction. This appeal is from the judgment for costs entered on the orders sustaining the demurrers.

The appellants and another person were seeking nomination by the Democratic Party in the municipal primary election, to be held in Baltimore City on March 5, 1963, for three seats in the City Council allocated to the Second Legislative and Councilmanic District. Their candidacies were endorsed by an established political faction known as the Regular Second District Democratic Organization. Three other candidates for the nomination were endorsed by the Downtown Civic Association (Downtown Association), a political faction organized and controlled by Weiss. Over a period of years, the Downtown Association had irregularly published a political tabloid known as the "Downtown News" ("News"), delivered primarily within the Second Councilmanic District, which in January 1963 commenced publishing articles supporting the candidates endorsed by the Downtown Association for the three seats in the City Council. On February 23, 1963, the "News" contained a headline stating that "POLLACK SUPPORTS PRUCHA AND WARD" and supporting explanatory articles. In one article, referring to one of the candidates, it was stated that "we will explain in full in a later issue." This edition of the "News" also noted that there would be a "special edition" before the election.

Two days later the appellants filed suit against the appellees

and the candidates they were supporting, praying for compensatory and punitive damages and an ex parte, a pendente lite and a permanent injunction to restrain the appellees from further libel. Attached to the bill was the proposed ex parte injunction which would have required the appellees to present to the appellants forty-eight hours in advance of distribution a copy of any newspaper to be published by them prior to March 7, 1963. There were also provisions for dissolution of the ex parte injunction upon twenty-four hours notice and for automatic termination on March 7th. The chancellor declined to sign the ex parte injunction but did sign a show cause order which was promptly served on the appellees. Although the demurrers were filed promptly, they were not heard and disposed of until after the election.

On appeal the appellants contend that they were denied their constitutional right to due process and equal protection of the law by the State of Maryland (through the act of one of its courts) in refusing to grant a limited and temporary ex parte injunction to restrict and restrain the publication of anticipated untruthful statements concerning the appellants and that a court of equity has the power to issue an injunction to restrain the publication of libelous statements.

In addition to filing a brief, the appellees moved to dismiss the appeal because the questions presented concern the refusal of injunctive relief only, but we deem it proper to decide the appeal on the merits rather than dismiss it.

Inasmuch as the election has long since been held, it is clear that the case is moot on the questions posed by the refusal of the chancellor to issue the ex parte injunction. See Lloyd v. Bd. of Supervisors of Elections, 206 Md. 36, 111 A.2d 379(1954). Cf. Freedman v. Seidler, 233 Md. 39, 194 A.2d 778(1963); Tolman Laundry v. Walker, 171 Md. 7, 187 A. 836(1936). However, since the bill also sought compensatory and punitive damages for the alleged false and malicious statements published in the February 23rd edition of the "News," it is appropriate to decide whether the case should be remanded for a determination of whether there was a libel and if so the amount of damages arising therefrom. Of course, no punitive damages

may be awarded by a court of equity. Superior Construction Co. v. Elmo, 204 Md. 1, 14, 104 A.2d 581(1954).

Ordinarily a person who is aggrieved by an alleged libelous publication will institute an action at law for compensatory damages and, in case there is actual or express malice, for punitive or exemplary damages. Protection against defamation, such as libel, has not been one of the traditional areas of equity jurisdiction. Consequently it is generally held that in the absence of independent grounds of equitable jurisdiction, equity lacks power to issue an injunction restraining the publication of defamatory matter. See 4 Pomeroy's Equity Jurisprudence, § 1358 (5th ed.); Newell, Slander and Libel, § 265 (3rd ed.). The primary reasons for the reluctance of equity to extend its jurisdiction so as to grant injunctive relief in cases of libel, a personal action, seems to be the traditional limitation of equitable jurisdiction to the protection of property rights, and the fear that to grant such relief would violate the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and press and trial by jury. See the annotation, "Injunction as remedy against defamation of person," 47 A.L.R. 2d 715. Although this Court ...

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