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Colonial Cases

Bryce v. Edmunds [1829]

libel

Supreme Court at Calcutta

31 March 1829

Source: The Morning Chronicle  (London, England), Tuesday, October 20, 1829, issue 18758 [1]

SUPREME COURT, CALCUTTA, March 31, 1829.

The Rev. James Bryce, D.D. against the Proprietor of the Bengal Hurkaru, for a Libel - The Advocate-General stated the circumstances out of which the libel arose. It was found in one of a series of letters published in The Bengal Chronicle and Hurkaru, of both of which papers the defendant was proprietor, criticising a volume of sermons published by the plaintiff in 1818. Of these criticisms he did not complain; but when the writer went out of his way to charge him with neglect of his clerical duties, with being every thing the reverse of what a Christian Minister ought to be - a hypocrite and no Christian - he was compelled to seek redress from the laws of his country. The malice of the defendant might, he thought, be inferred from the length of time which had elapsed between the publication of the sermons and the date of the libel, which was written in 1827; and he would show, form a paper of the defendant's, published only a few days before the libel appeared, that he openly declared to the world, that in criticising the plaintiff's sermon he was actuated by different motives from those which critics at a distance could have. He would also prove, that so far was the plaintiff from neglecting his stated duties, that he had gone beyond the strict line of them to administer the consolations of his office to the defendant's own family, when in distress. The Learned Gentleman said, it might in most cases be better to overlook such libels, when character stood so high as did that of the plaintiff, and he admitted they might do him no harm or injury here when he was known; but he must guard against their effects at home.

Mr. Edmunds proved the defendant being the proprietor of The Bengal Hurkaru; he proved that the Reverend plaintiff had been called by the defendant to baptize one of his children that was ill, and had done so; that there was a controversy going on between The John Bull Newspaper and The Bengal Hurkaru,before the publication of the libel.

The Court would not allow any question to be put as to the nature of the controversy.

Mr. Pritchard proved that the plaintiff acted as a Minister of the Church of Scotland; that he was proprietor and Editor of The Quarterly Oriental Magazine, that he was also a proprietor of The John Bull before the libel was written; that he never was the Editor of that paper; that he wrote in it literary and other articles; that he published in it, under his own name, controversial letters to Mr. Dickens in 1825; that two of the Editors who had conducted The Bull were relations of the plaintiff and lived with him at his own house in Garden Reach; that the one was twenty-eight years of age, and the other twenty-four, as he believed.

Mr. J.C. Wilson proved the plaintiff to be a Minister of the Church of Scotland; that he had seen him in his place in the General Assembly in 1819. He also proved the signature of the Moderator of the Assembly, in 1815, authenticating the charter, by which the Scotch Church is established in this country.

Mr. Crompton said, it appeared from the evidence, that the plaintiff is a proprietor of The John Bull; and it is impossible to read the paper in which the offensive words are, and not see that a controversy existed between that paper and the Hurkaru. On a former occasion the Advocate-General contended, that a proprietor could not see all that went into a paper, and it has not been proved that his (Mr. C.'s) client saw this passage before it was printed. In this country, where newspapers take such liberties, every one is liable to be attacked; and on such occasions it is much more magnanimous to say nothing. A clergyman ought not to come into Court unless his character cannot stand without his so doing. The Advocate-General had not asked for large damages: and to suppose that Dr. Bryce came into Court with the view of obtaining heavy damages, would be to impute to him what his worst enemies would not allege against him, and which was quite inconsistent with his high character, and that piety, charity, and Christian love, for which he was so justly and eminently distinguished.

The Chief Justice, after some consultation with the other Judges, read the libel for which this action was brought. It was necessary, his Lordship said, in the first place, to consider the import of the libel; and to him it seemed to accuse the plaintiff of devoting his time to the conducting of a public journal, in a manner that interfered with his sacred duties, at least so as to prevent him performing them in a zealous manner. The concluding words in particular seem to imply that he was every thing the opposite of a Christian; and if they stood alone, they would be a very serious libel. But the writer himself qualifies his meaning so far by pointing out why he accuses Dr. Bryce in such a way. The main reason assigned is because he is the conductor of a public journal, and this takes away considerably from the sting of the libel. Had the words stood alone, it might have been supposed that a better reason existed for it than that stated - but having spoken as he does, he qualifies this libel and renders it so far innocuous. As so qualified, we are to consider what injury has been sustained by the plaintiff in consequence of it. And in this country, this being the sole ground of the accusation, his Lordship was inclined to say that the damage was little or nothing, as here the plaintiff's character is too well known, and stood too high to be affected by such libels - and few persons would be disposed to think worse of the plaintiff on account of it. But the consequences may be very different at home. It might hurt him as a Minister of the Scottish Church. He held his situation under the General Assembly; and if this allegation were to be set aside without compensation, they might say let us have some other representative of our Church in India of whom it cannot be even asserted that he falls short of his duty. The case may, however, be otherwise; but it certainly requires a man to be placed in very peculiar and fortunate circumstances where his character shall be invulnerable. It appears that he was a proprietor of the newspaper along with two young men, his relations, who lived in the same house with him, and who edited the paper. It is in evidence that writings of a controversial nature appeared in the two rival papers - it was under these circumstances that the offensive words were written. They were published by the proprietor of a daily paper, against the proprietor of another daily paper, of which the two young men were the editors. The circumstances under which words are written or spoken must be considered. A blow stuck is not to be measured by the mere violence of it - the provocation must also be weighed. It is therefore proper to consider the circumstances under which the libel was published. The libel is severe, but it is modified. It does not appear that the writer of it had any other motive for alleging neglect of duty that the plaintiff being the editor of a newspaper. It is not likely to do the plaintiff damage in India; and every one who has attended to the trial will go away with the belief of the plaintiff's character standing as high as before the libel was written. The case may be different at home, and the plaintiff is certainly entitled to damages. The injury is not one, however, that can be compensated by money.

April 1. - The Court, on the Judges taking their place, stated that in this case eight hundred rupees damages had been awarded. - Calcutta Journal.

Note

[1]  See also Caledonian Mercury  (Edinburgh, Scotland), 12 October 1829, issue 16871; Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle etc  (Portsmouth, England), 26 October 1829, issue 1568; The Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Ireland), 10 November 1829, issue 9643.

Published by Centre for Comparative Law, History and Governance at Macquarie Law School