Shortly after Harper, Mann, and Gavit had brought suit against the Hearst newspapers for damages and retraction of their editorial charging these men with being communists, I was in Milwaukee to attend a wedding. Louise Given, the widow of George Given, an old friend of mine who had died and whose daughter was being married, had asked me to take the role of the father for this wedding which was to be a fashionable wedding in one of the principal churches in Milwaukee. Following the wedding a reception was held at an exclusive club at the Lakefront. I was greeting people in the reception line when a distinguished-looking gentleman stepped up and said that he was the chief counsel for the Hearst newspapers. He added with a smile, “As you know, we shall have to defend ourselves against the suit brought by members of your faculty. Just as a matter of curiosity, what will you testify as to the patriotism, loyalty, and integrity of these men?”
I replied that I had intimate knowledge of each of them and would testify that they were outstanding citizens of the United States, wholly patriotic, and they were in no way associated with the communist party or communist sympathizers.
He laughed and said, “That’s what I was afraid you would testify.” Then he proceeded to tell me that in his role as chief counsel for the Hearst newspapers, all editorials dealing with controversial matters were supposed to cross his desk prior to being printed. He checked them for any libelous reference and had the power to modify or even kill the editorial. There was one exception to that practice. When the editorial was written by Mr. Hearst and sent down from San Simeon, regardless of its content the counsel could not stop it.
He continued, “When I saw the editorial attacking Mann, Harper, and Gavit, I said to one of my colleagues, ‘That’s a libel suit as surely as I am sitting here but there is nothing I can do about it.’ We chatted for a moment about what was likely to happen and when. “He’ll try and get the matter up for some kind of hearing in the summer,” he promised. I told him that I expected to be in Europe in the summer and he replied, “Well, we will send an attorney to your office and take your deposition before you leave.”
I thought no more of the matter until I received a call just a day or two before I was to leave for Europe, asking if the attorney for the Hearst papers could take my deposition. In the presence of the attorney for the plaintiffs, the young man took my deposition, which was presumably to be used in the upcoming trial while I was in Europe. In reply to his questions I testified as to my belief that these men were patriotic, loyal citizens in no way associated with the communist party nor sympathetic with communism.
After the deposition, the Hearst attorney asked to speak to me alone. Then he told me this amazing story. “It is customary for the Hearst newspapers when faced, as we frequently are, with this kind of action dealing with universities [it was the McCarthy era when witch-hunting was prevalent] to put undercover operators in the university community to try to discover something of a questionable nature dealing either with the case or anything else that would be embarrassing to the university, and if such can be found, we confront the administration with it in the hope that the administration will try to get the plaintiff to drop the case.” He added, “We have followed the same procedure here. We’ve had expert undercover operators downtown and in the University in the last couple of months. We’ve had them on your buildings and grounds staff and your secretarial staff and throughout the whole community. You will be pleased to learn that we were unable to find a single thing that we can use to bargain with you for the withdrawal of the case. This is the first time that we have found a university campus which could withstand our kind of investigation and come out wholly clean. I want to congratulate you. Now, although you mustn’t tell the plaintiffs, I have to meet with their attorney and try to make the best possible deal I can make for the settlement. There is no point in us going to court because we can’t win. We have to settle out of court.’’ Although I do not know the financial terms of the settlement, I know that each of the Hearst papers printed a retraction and apology in the same location on the editorial pages that it had carried the defamatory editorial.