Source: New York Times, May 13, 2000
Neighbors' Spat Leads to a Huge Award Against the Anti-Defamation League
By MICHAEL JANOFSKY
DENVER, May 12 -- As a dispute with their neighbors intensified in 1994, Mitchell and Candace Aronson of Evergreen, Colo., tuned in a police scanner to intercept private phone conversations and heard the neighbors make what the Aronsons perceived were anti-Semitic remarks about them. The Aronsons immediately sought help from the Anti-Defamation League, whose local director publicly called the neighbors anti-Semites.
Over the next five and a half years, the conflict widened into a vicious legal battle over issues of privacy and defamation, ending in a Denver federal court, where a jury recently returned the first verdict ever against the league, a unit of the B'nai Brith that has fought anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry for 87 years.
The jury also awarded the neighbors, William and Dorothy Quigley, $10.5 million in damages -- a quarter of the league's annual budget.
The Aronsons, who are now divorced, were not defendants in the case.
Lawyers for the league filed motions today asking the trial judge to set aside the verdict or, failing that, reduce the award. But the case has focused a rare spotlight on how aggressively an organization that prides itself on exposing anti-Semitism responds to perceived threats that, for many Jews, carry the emotional weight of historical persecution. In testimony, the Quigleys, who are Roman Catholic, insisted that their language did not mean to convey anti-Semitic feelings.
Still, by ruling that Saul F. Rosenthal, the director of the league's Mountain States regional chapter, defamed the Quigleys with public remarks that relied upon phone conversations taped in violation of federal wiretap laws, the jury put limits on how far an organization can go toward fulfilling its mission. It also sent a message that protecting the privacy of personal telephone conversations is more important than punishing offensive language they might include. While some legal experts agreed with the jury's findings, others said that if the judgment survives appeal, the organization might have to temper its responses in the future. Barry Curtiss-Lusher, chairman of the Mountain
States chapter, said that the possibility that the verdict could have a chilling effect on the organization was "one of our fears."
"It's frightening," Mr. Curtiss-Lusher said. "It's why we will appeal."
Abraham Foxman, the league's national director and a Holocaust survivor (webmaster's note: this is a lie), disagreed, insisting that Mr. Rosenthal did nothing wrong on behalf of the Aronsons and that the league would respond in the same way again.
"We are always concerned about attitude because we don't know what the flash point is," Mr. Foxman said, referring to remarks made by the Quigleys that the Aronsons taped and found offensive. "With latent anti-Semitism, at what point is attitude converted into action or violence? This is what concerns us, and I would hope this verdict does not have a chilling effect on what we do.
"We will continue to stand up against racism and anti-Semitism. Even though we are sometimes misconstrued, that has always been our strength."
Only once before has the league been a defendant in a defamation case that went to trial, winning in 1984. Many other cases against the league were dismissed.
Alan M. Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor, who is not affiliated with the league, said: "In the final analysis, this could chill the work of a very important organization that lives by its freedom of expression. Sometimes they make a mistake, but the essence of American free speech is that you have the right to be wrong."
With appeals ahead, neither the Aronsons, the Quigleys, Mr. Rosenthal nor their lawyers would comment on the case.
The story of the Aronsons and Quigleys, as told through court documents and trial testimony, began the summer of 1994, when the two families lived two houses apart in Evergreen, an upscale suburb west of Denver in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Former New Yorkers all, they occasionally socialized; their children played together.
But starting with arguments over the behavior of their dogs, the friendship deteriorated, leading to an incident in which Mr. Quigley drove his car toward Mrs. Aronson, sitting in her car, before he turned away. In court papers, Mr. Quigley contended that Mrs. Aronson was taunting him by blocking his passage; Mrs. Aronson claimed Mr. Quigley was speeding to intimidate her.
In either case, after Mrs. Aronson told her husband what happened, he turned on a police scanner that he often used and picked up Mrs. Quigley speaking on a cordless telephone with a friend. Hearing Mrs. Quigley talking about him and his wife and discussing ways to drive them out of the neighborhood, Mr. Aronson began taping a conversation that lasted nearly two hours and included references to Holocaust imagery, like "painting a facsimile of an oven door" on the Aronson house, and suggestions that they would harm the Aronson children.
But Mrs. Quigley and her friend laughed about theirnconversation, as if to suggest that Mrs. Quigley was letting off steam. At one point, Mrs. Quigley conceded to her friend that their remarks were "sick."
The Aronsons were not so amused. In the days that followed, they complained to David J. Thomas, the Jefferson County district attorney, contending that the Quigleys had violated Colorado's ethnic intimidation law, which prohibits intimidation, harassment or actions against a person based on race, religion, ancestry or national origin.
They also contacted the Anti-Defamation League, saying they had become victims of anti-Semitism. At the suggestion of lawyers for the league who later represented them, the Aronsons continued taping the Quigleys' phone conversations, amassing almost 100 hours worth in the next seven weeks.
Some tapes, testimony showed, included other derogatory comments about Jews and references to the Holocaust -- all by Mrs. Quigley -- which the Quigleys' lawyer, Jay S. Horowitz, characterized in court papers as "facetious or sarcastic."
Mr. Aronson dismissed that interpretation, testifying that he and his wife "lived in great fear" of the Quigleys because of what they had heard.
The tapes led to no physical actions by the Quigleys and they revealed no anti-Semitic remarks by Mr. Quigley, but they became the source of almost everything that followed and, ultimately, the reason the league lost in court.
Unknown to anyone at the time that the Aronsons were taping -- including Mr. Thomas, -- Congress amended the federal wiretap law, making it illegal to record conversations on a cordless telephone, to transcribe the material and to use the transcriptions for any purpose. The law already covered conventional telephones and cellular phones.
Without knowing about the change, the Aronsons used the tapes as the basis for a federal civil lawsuit against the Quigleys in December 1994. A day later, Mr. Rosenthal appeared at a news conference with the Aronsons in which he described their encounter with the Quigleys as "a vicious anti-Semitic campaign," based solely on conversations he and associates had with the Aronsons. Later that day, Mr. Rosenthal expanded on his remarks in an interview on a Denver radio talk show.
Two days later, Mr. Thomas used the tapes as the basis for filing criminal charges against the Quigleys.
But after Mr. Thomas learned of the change in the wiretap law and heard on the tapes the context of Mrs. Quigley's remarks, he dropped all charges but one, a misdemeanor traffic violation against Mr. Quigley for the incident in the street. In an open letter released to reporters, Mr. Thomas apologized to the Quigleys, saying he found no evidence that either had engaged in "anti-Semitic conduct or harassment."
A swirl of lawsuits, countersuits and settlements over the next four years left only the Quigleys' civil complaint against the Anti-Defamation League and Mr. Rosenthal. In a four-week trial that ended last month, the jury determined that Mr. Rosenthal had made more than 40 statements defaming the Quigleys; their lawyers asked the judge today to use his discretion to triple the jury's damage award.