May 13, 2000
Spat Leads to a Huge Award Against the
By MICHAEL JANOFSKY
ENVER, 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
local director publicly called the
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.
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."
Foxman, the league's national director
and a Holocaust survivor [not
so], 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
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
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.
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
Alan M. Dershowitz, the
Harvard law professor, who is
"not affiliated with the
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
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
But Mrs. Quigley and her friend laughed
about their conversation, 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.
contacted the Anti-Defamation League,
saying they had become victims of
the suggestion of
lawyers for the
league who later represented them, the
Quigleys' phone conversations, amassing
almost 100 hours worth in the next
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
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
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
story on this website: Charges
of bigotry backfire