It was a lazy Friday afternoon 50 years ago in the northern part of the Central Valley in a small town. The editor-publisher of a local weekly shopping newspaper that also ran a few news stories and letters of immediate interest to its limited circulation decided to leave the office early.
He instructed his only employee, who ran the linotype machine, to finish off that week’s paper and to “run any letters that we have received.” Such letters were rare.
Unfortunately, there was a letter that found its way into the paper that called a local public official a “horse’s ass.” He was, of course, outraged and sued the uninsured paper for libel.
As a media specialist, my services were enlisted in his defense. Of course, I asserted the defense of Times v. Sullivan that gave the media a reprieve for unintentional libels of a public figure.
Never miss a local story.
But then the idea occurred to me to assert the defense of truth, which is an absolute defense to libelous and slanderous defamatory comments. I would prove that the man was indeed a horse’s behind!
This quest led me to Fresno State and its professors to help in defining what characteristics such a person possessed. We developed some clear ideas.
First, a horse’s behind was surely male. There were plenty of epithets to apply to rude women from animal comparisons to crude sexual references, but not that one.
Then they had to be in a position of some prominence. The quiet clerk might be a candidate but since he was ill noticed, he would be exempt. A political figure such as the one at issue was a perfect candidate. Actors, national officials and sports figures would qualify.
Then they had to be loud. The typical horse’s behind, we concluded, was a loud and aggressive person. He would tend to dominate any venue in which he appeared.
Insensitivity was a sure hallmark. A misogynist was clearly a candidate. A typical horse’s behind would belittle women, all to add to his grandeur. He might refer to his wife as “the little woman” for example. And racial slurs about minorities were typical.
Indeed, our perceived character was a white male, although surely one can find candidates among minorities, but they have been sufficiently oppressed through the ages so that dominating behavior was ill-rewarded.
Egomania was a clear part of this picture. The true horse’s behind had to be totally taken up with himself. He had to not see the chagrin and hurt he was inflicting around him, and, indeed, would violently attack anyone who threatened him answering with retaliatory words, gesture and disdain.
A leading, long-deceased figure in the local Bar Association over half a century ago surely qualified. When one of the two women members entered the room when he had the podium, he would launch into prostitute jokes. And then espouse his theory that women couldn’t be attorneys because of their monthly indisposition.
One of the two women, Annette LaRue, walked behind him and poured ice water on his head, a worthy response.
Phil Fullerton of Fresno is a retired lawyer.