Former state representative John Goldmark wins $40,000 (later overturned) in a libel case against four individuals and a newspaper that had called him a Communist "tool," on January 22, 1964.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 7/13/2010
  • Essay 9485
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On January 22, 1964, John Goldmark (1917-1979) and his wife, Sally Goldmark (1907-1985), win $40,000 in a libel case against four individuals and a newspaper that had called him a Communist "tool." Goldmark was in the middle of a 1962 primary campaign for a fourth term as a Democratic state representative when he was accused in a local newspaper editorial of being "a tool of a monstrous conspiracy" and Sally Goldmark was accused of being a communist. Goldmark lost the primary by a large margin. Soon after, Goldmark and his wife filed a libel suit against the Tonasket Tribune and four conservatives, including the editor of the paper and the state coordinator for the John Birch Society. The case went to trial in Okanogan on November 4, 1963. A jury finds for the Goldmarks on five of the nine claims and awards them $40,000. However, in December 1964 the judge will reverse the verdict, based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in another case. In a tragic postscript, Goldmark's son Charles Goldmark and his family will be murdered in 1985 in Seattle by an unbalanced man who said he killed them under the mistaken impression that the Goldmark family is communist.

Smearing a State Representative

John Goldmark was a Harvard Law School graduate and a nephew of the former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. After wartime service in the Navy, he came to Okanogan in 1947 from Washington, D.C., with his wife Sally (the former Irma Ringe) to start a life as a cattle rancher. He soon became a prominent member of the community and was elected a Democratic state representative in 1956, 1958, and 1960.

He was running for a fourth term when conservative political foes began a campaign to paint him and his wife as communist. Ashley Holden, the editor of the Tonasket Tribune, wrote an editorial that called Goldmark "a tool of a monstrous conspiracy to remake America into a totalitarian state which would throttle freedom and crush individual initiative” ("Libel Jury"). He also wrote that Goldmark was "the idol of the Pinkos and ultra-liberals who infest every session of the legislature" (Caron).

Albert Canwell, a former Republican state legislator, former chairman of the State Un-American Activities Committee and outspoken anti-communist crusader, taped an interview, later distributed as "An Interview With Al Canwell," which stated that Sally Goldmark was a member of the Communist Party as recently as 1948. This charge contained some truth -- Sally Goldmark testified in the trial that she had joined the Communist Party in Washington D.C. in 1935. But she said had left in 1943 and had no contact with it since. She said she had long ago changed her mind about communism and had earlier told the FBI and the House Committee on Un-American Activities everything she knew about the Communist Party.

Then, at a public meeting at the American Legion Hall, Canwell gave a speech in which he said that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was a communist front. Goldmark, who was at the meeting, was convinced that this, too, was aimed directly at him. Goldmark was a member of the ACLU’s state committee.

Goldmark was defeated soundly in the primary and shortly afterward he filed a $225,000 suit claiming that he and his wife had been libeled "with malice and permanently" as Communists or sympathizers.

Besides Holden and Canwell, the other defendants in the libel case were Don Caron, state coordinator for the John Birch Society, and local orchardist Loris Gillespie, who chaired the American Legion meeting.

The Trial

The trial, held in Okanogan before Judge Theodore S. Turner from King County, had a sharp political edge from the beginning. Holden was unrepentant, saying on the stand that he believed that both Goldmark and his wife remained communists. The defendants’ attorney, E. Glenn Harmon, accused the Goldmarks of "being under Communist Party discipline" (Fischer, "Publisher").

When Holden was asked if Goldmark was a "conscious, deliberate agent for the communist conspiracy," he replied, "He knew what he was doing." Holden had earlier declared that the trial was an "effort to scare the living daylights out of conservatives everywhere in the nation" (Fischer, "Goldmark Presentation").

Goldmark denied ever having any membership or sympathy for the Communist Party and said he did not believe in anything it stood for.

At times, the trial became personal. Some of the defendants had speculated that the Goldmark’s marriage was some kind of communist "forced marriage." One witness quoted Gillespie as saying, "Why would he, Goldmark, marry a girl as homely as Sally, if he wasn't forced into it?" ("Goldmark Marriage Eyed").

The trial lasted for 43 days and at times devolved into arguments over issues such as the definition of "liberal." One defense witness opined that a liberal was defined as “a person who has very little knowledge of fiscal responsibility” ("Liberal Defined").

At one point, Sally Goldmark's interest in folk music was cited as evidence of her communist sympathies. At another point, the defense attorney asked her if the Communist Party approved of "mixed nude swimming parties" ("Future Damaged"). She replied frostily that she had no idea.

A long line of witnesses took the stand, including Hollywood actor Sterling Hayden, fresh from filming "Dr. Strangelove," who testified on behalf of the Goldmarks.

The Goldmark’s son, Charles Goldmark, 19, also testified in rebuttal to one of Holden’s articles, which noted that the younger Goldmark was a student at Reed College in Portland, "the only Northwest campus allowing Communist Party secretary Gus Hall to speak." Charles Goldmark said that other campuses had also allowed Hall to speak. Charles said that he attended the Reed speech but left "about halfway through it" ("Pro-Red Views Denied by Son").

Republican state representative Slade Gorton (b. 1928) also testified on behalf of the Goldmarks. He told the jury that Goldmark’s reputation in the legislature was "excellent," that he never heard any hint that Goldmark was tied to any communist causes, and that there were certainly "more liberal" Democrats in the legislature than Goldmark (“Past Recalled by Mrs. Goldmark)”.

Sally Goldmark took the stand for days to talk about her past. She said that her complaint wasn’t that the defendants revealed her communist past; her complaint was that "this was mixed up with a lot of lies and innuendoes" (Fischer, "Plaintiff Criticizes").

The defendants brought in a number of anti-communist "experts" -- including some ex-Communists -- to testify to the enormity of the communist conspiracy. Canwell said that the lawsuit itself was "a part of the communist opposition to the right wing movement in America" (Fischer, "Defendant Canwell").

The defendants’ attorneys closed by saying that the defendants did not conspire to defame Goldmark. They simply worked to defeat a political candidate and that Americans should have the "right to criticize any public official without being hauled into court" ("Goldmark Jury Deliberates").

In the end, however, William Dwyer (1929-2002), the Goldmark's attorney, said the case was about simple fairness.

"I don't think in this state there has ever been such an example of people going so far and acting so viciously to ruin a man's name," said Dwyer in closing arguments. "They've said every conceivable dirty thing about that woman (Sally) they could say without being held in contempt of court" (Fischer, "Goldmark Case Near Conclusion").

The jury awarded verdicts to Goldmark on five of the nine claims in the case and awarded $40,000 in damages, one of the largest libel verdicts in Washington history. The largest award was levied against Holden for his “monstrous conspiracy” editorial and another story. All three of the other defendants were also found liable on various claims. The jury did not, however, find that the defendants formed a conspiracy to defame the Goldmarks.


The Goldmarks were described as “exuberant” and called it a “great vindication” (“Libel Jury”). The defendants immediately called for a new trial.

The verdict made national news. Time magazine ran a story headlined “The Limits of Political Invective.” The Washington Post ran an editorial headlined, “Vindication.”

In December 1964, the Judge Turner granted a new trial. A few days later, on December 18, 1964, Turner went even further and nullified the jury’s verdict, reversing the $40,000 judgment. Turner did so because of a March 1964 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving The New York Times. The Supreme Court ruled that a public official could not collect damages for criticism of his official actions in absence of proof of malice.

Turner said the evidence in the Goldmark case established that Goldmark was not a communist and that the defendants had made false charges to injure him politically. But there was no clear proof of malice. Defense attorney Harmon called it a "victory for the right of the common man to criticize our elected officials" ("Goldmark Verdict Upset").

Dwyer said their goal was to prove that the Goldmarks were not communists, and that "we still hold the substantial victory” ("Dismissal Order"). In his 1984 book about the case, he wrote that "The goal of vindicating Goldmark against the smear campaign had been reached and that victory could not be undone" (Dwyer).

John Goldmark never held public office again. He and Sally later moved to Seattle.

A Family Murdered

The repercussions of the case resonated for two more decades, with tragic results. On December 24, 1985, Charles Goldmark, then a 41-year-old attorney in Seattle, opened his door to a stranger just before a Christmas Eve gathering. The stranger, David L. Rice, tied up Goldman, his wife and their two children, 10 and 12, chloroformed them, and beat them to death.

Rice later said he said he did it because he had heard a passing reference that Goldmark was a communist during a meeting of an ultra-right-wing organization. Rice regarded himself as a soldier in the war against communism and that “sometimes soldiers have to kill” (Coughlin, Hopkins). He thought the attack would bring him recognition for striking a blow against communism.

Sources: Jack E. Fischer, "Publisher Says Two Libel Suit Plaintiffs Are Reds," The Spokesman-Review, November 7, 1963, p. 3; "Goldmark Marriage Eyed," Spokane Daily Chronicle, November 1, 1963, p. 2; "Past Recalled by Mrs. Goldmark," Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 2, 1963, p. 2; Jack E. Fischer, "Plaintiff Criticizes Anti-Red Tactics," The Spokesman-Review, December 6, 1963, p. 16; "Future Damaged, Goldmark Claims," Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 6, 1963, p. 2; "Liberal Defined at Trial," The Spokesman-Review, December 12, 1963, p. 26; Jack E. Fischer, "Defendant Canwell Charges Suit is Slap at Right Wing," The Spokesman-Review, January 8, 1964, p. 7; "Goldmark Jury Deliberates," Spokane Daily Chronicle, January 18, 1964, p. 2; "Libel Jury Sets $40,000 in Suit by Goldmarks," Spokane Daily Chronicle, January 22, 1964, p. 1; "Decision of Supreme Court May Affect Goldmark Case," The Spokesman-Review, March 14, 1964. p. 5; "Goldmark Verdict Upset," Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 18, 1964, p. 1; "John Goldmark, Aides, Mull Libel Case Dismissal Order," The Spokesman-Review, January 25, 1965, p. 17; Don Caron, Labels, Lies and Logic: What Happened When Four Patriots Revealed the Facts in a Political Campaign, pamphlet reprinted from The Wanderer, March 26, 1964; "Goldmark Boy Dies of Injuries," Spokane Daily Chronicle, January 31, 1986, p. 2; Dan Coughlin and Jack Hopkins, "Rice Explains Why He Killed," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 24, 1986, p. 1; Albert F. Canwell, "Albert F. Canwell: An Oral History," interviewed by Timothy Frederick, Washington State Oral History Program, Office of the Secretary of State, on the Washington State Legislature’s Oral History website,, accessed July 10, 2010; William L. Dwyer, The Goldmark Case: An American Libel Trial (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984); "Trials: The Limits of Political Invective," Time magazine,  January 31, 1964.

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