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Libel on Religion Not Covered by Law, Court Holds; Anti-Semitic Agitation Denounced

An indictment against Robert Edward Edmondson, anti-Semitic pamphleteer, for libeling the Jewish religion was dismissed yesterday by Judge James G. Wallace of General Sessions Court on the ground that New York State’s law did not cover group libel. In his decision, Judge Wallace denounced Edmondson, but held it was wiser to "bear with scandal-mongering than to extend the criminal law to become an instrument of oppression."

Judge Wallace also dismissed, on his own motion, indictments against Edmondson alleging that he had libeled Secretary of Labor Frances Perking and Dean Virginia C. Gildersleeve of Barnard College, on the ground that "these indictments on their face do not set forth a crime."

Dismissal of the indictments was sought recently by five organizations, including the American Jewish Congress and American Jewish Committee, in briefs filed with the court. Mayor LaGuardia had taken the initiative in June, 1936, in obtaining the indictments, and since then there had been several postponements of Edmondson’s trial.

"There can be no doubt as to the defamatory nature of the publications mentioned," Judge Wallace said in his 19-page decision. "They are palpably the outpouring of a fanatica and bigoted mind. Nevertheless, they have been circulated for years and have never provoked. A breach of the peace in this community, nor, in spite of their virulence, are they apt to."

Stressing that "we must suffer the demagogue and the charlatan in order to make certain that we do not limit or restrain the honest commentator on public affairs," Judge Wallace stated regarding the legal aspect of the case:

"It may be, as the learned District Attorney suggests, that the General Construction Law permits us to construe the word ‘person’ to mean persons or a number of individuals, and of course, a malicious publication, which has a tendency to injure any person, corporation or association in their business or occupation, is indictable under our Penal Law.

"The question now to be considered is whether or not the statute has been or should be extended by judicial construction so as to sustain an indictment for invective against much larger groups, such as all the Jews, or all the Christians, or all the Democrats, or all the Republicans.

"It is my opinion that such an indictment cannot be sustained under the laws of this State, and that no such indictment as one based upon defamatory matter directed against a group or community so large as ‘all persons of the Jewish religion’ has ever been sustained in this or any other jurisdiction.

"Putting aside the consideration of the rational basis of criminal prosecution for libel, i am of the opinion that the soundest rule that has been enunciated on the subject of group libel is this: That an indictment cannot be predicated upon defamatory writings assailing a class or group, unless directly, or by implication, some individual is libeled."

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