Monday, May 20, 2013

The Ross Libel Case

 


 

 
In 1912, J J Ross, a Baptist clergyman in Canada, published a booklet “Some Facts about the Self Styled Pastor Russell.” It attacked CTR over a number of issues, including his marital problems, his business ventures and his ordination and education or lack of same.

CTR sued Ross, but the indictment got no further than the magistrates court. As a result, Ross published an expanded booklet with extracts from the court transcript, claiming that he “won” and CTR “lost”. The accusations made in this booklet, especially over whether CTR could read or understand Biblical Greek have been re-circulated down to this day. Opponents of CTR accuse him of perjury. Others reading the limited transcript available see a far more innocent explanation; one given by CTR at the time.

Regrettably, the full transcript of the key hearing, where CTR was cross-examined by George Lynch Staunton, is not currently available. Staunton’s copy does not appear to survive, nor that of J J Ross, and the one owned by the Watchtower Society was lost for many years, then reportedly rediscovered, then apparently mislaid again.

While it might give many interesting historical morsels in CTR’s testimony, it probably covered similar ground to other trials of the day involving CTR. This can be seen by examining how the newspapers of the day reported the proceedings.

What is noteworthy is that the reporters in court never picked up on any accusations approaching perjury. Any reference to CTR’s ability to read Greek, be it letters or language, was so peripheral it didn’t merit comment. In their minds the accusations made by Ross focussed more on CTR’s marital difficulties and ordination – subjects already raised by newspapers such as the Brooklyn Eagle, from where Ross’s original booklet admitted he had obtained most of his material. And crucially, the newspapers of the day explained why Ross was not found guilty. (One must always remember that in law it was Ross who was the defendant, not CTR).

The answer is given very clearly in the cutting at the head of this article. And it reflects what CTR himself said by way of explanation at the time.

When later asked about the case, CTR made his defense in the Watch Tower, September 15th, 1914, pp. 286-7 (reprints page 5543). This was a reproduction of a letter published in a newspaper in Trinidad, apparently in answer to Ross's second booklet. The key part is as follows:

(all underlining mine):

'I am quite familiar with the slanderous screed issued by Rev. J.J. Ross. In Canada they have just two laws governing libel. Under the one, the falsifier may be punished by the assessment of damages and money. Under the other, criminal libel, he is subject to imprisonment. I entered suit against Rev. Ross under the criminal act at the advice of my attorneys, because, as he had no property, a suit for damages would not intimidate him nor stop him. The lower court found him guilty of libel. But when the case went to the second judge he called up an English precedent in which it was held that criminal libel would only operate in a case where the jury felt sure that there was danger of rioting or violence. As there was no danger that myself or friends would resort to rioting, the case was thrown out. I could still bring my action for financial damages but it would be costly to me and impotent as respects Rev. Ross.'

(CTR then discusses at some length the issues raised on Biblical languages and ordination and presents his side of the case).

So CTR states he was advised to try for criminal libel, but because of an English precedent relating to resulting 'rioting' and 'violence', it was thrown out. The English law (obviously governing Canada at this time) is put simply in Reader's Digest Family Guide to the Law (1971 edition) page 675: (underlining mine):

'Libel is normally a civil wrong - what the law calls a 'tort' -·but it can be also a criminal offense if the prosecution shows that the libel caused, or was likely to cause a breach of the peace. Such prosecutions are rare because the person libelled normally prefers to seek damages in a civil action; for even if someone is found guilty of criminal libel the person defamed does not get any damages.'

In discussing how certain rare circumstances allow for criminal libel of the dead, it states:

'If the dead person is libelled in such a way that his relatives are understandably angered into a breach of the peace, the writer might be prosecuted for criminal libel.'

So the key point in law is, will the one libelled be likely to cause a breach of the peace, or will his relatives?

This is backed up by Stones Justice Manual, 1985 edition, Section 4-5671. After the definition of criminal libel, and various decisions on whether or not the dead could be so libelled, we have the British precedent to which CTR referred: (underlining mine):

(quote) Lord COLERIDGE CJ, directed a grand jury at Berkshire Assizes, Reading, February 1889, that there ought to be some public interest concerned, something affecting the Crown or in guardians of public peace, to justify the recourse by a private person to criminal libel by way of indictment. If either by reason of the continued repetition or infamous character of the libel a breach of the peace was likely to ensue, then the libeller should be indicted: but in the absense of such conditions, a personal squabble between two individuals ought not to be permitted by grand juries, as indeed it was not permitted by sound law to the subject of criminal indictment, and he invited them to throw out the bill, which, in accordance with his suggestion, was done (33 Sol Jo 250).

In summary – if no breach of the peace was actually caused by, or threatened by, the one libelled, a private individual bringing a charge of criminal libel would have it thrown out – irrespective of the merits of the case. Had CTR brought a civil action against Ross it may have been a different result. This is what he did with actions against the 'Washington Post' and Chicago 'Mission Friend' where both cases were decided in his favour. The issue of CTR’s 'divorce/separation' was common to all cases.

The whole object of the exercise was to silence Ross, and CTR wrote to him while the case was pending offering to withdraw the suit if Ross would discontinue his (quote) "injurious slanderous course". (See Watch Tower, October 1st, 1915). On this occasion the strategy backfired!

In hindsight it would appear that CTR received flawed legal advice to go for the rare charge of criminal libel, rather than civil libel as before.

In the Watch Tower for October 1st, 1915, when answering a question about why he, CTR, took someone to court, when Jesus didn't, he stated about the Ross case: "We are not certain that we did the wisest and best thing – the thing most pleasing to the Lord in the matter mentioned."

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