I enjoyed this look back to the 1930’s and a scandalous battle between the AKC and an editorial writer, hope you do too! Published by The Canine Chronical and linked below.
Sally Gift, Mesa AZ
Turn-of-The-Century Scandals: AKC vs. Boehm
By Amy Fernandez
It may seem unbelievable, but at one time AKC often shared detailed information about its legal wrangles. Transcripts, depositions, and trial verdicts were published in the AKC Gazette. Needless to say, this was never an official policy and there was no altruistic motive attached to these uncharacteristic episodes of transparency. AKC did it to make a point. A good example is the case of AKC vs. S. Boehm. It merited three months of coverage, including extensive excerpts from the trial board hearing June 22, 1930.
It centered on an editorial in Dogdom, a monthly publication based in Battle Creek, Michigan. It had a good run from 1900-1941, and its success was built on its appeal to mainstream fanciers. The content wasn’t the most polished or professional. But it delved into the issues affecting its readers, often showcasing them with very lively editorials. And this one hit a nerve at 51 Madison Avenue.
Published in April 1930, it was provocatively titled How Much Longer, O American Kennel Club. The author, S. Boehm was clearly exasperated by AKC bureaucracy- specifically its contradictory treatment of fanciers, skyrocketing fees, and endless fines imposed for dubious infractions. It wasn’t the first, last, or worst journalistic denigration of AKC management. But this author was also a breeder/exhibitor with 16 years in the game. Speed may not exemplify every AKC action, but they were on this immediately. Boehm headed the list at AKC’s next Executive Committee Meeting.
Minutes from the May 20 meeting reported, “ It was moved and carried that the Legal Committee write a letter to the publisher and editor of Dogdom, calling attention to misstatements and other statements bordering on libel… stating that if this policy is continued the matter will be referred to our attorney. It was moved and carried that the Secretary be instructed to prefer charges against S. Boehm for conduct prejudicial to the best interests of the American Kennel Club… and that same be sent to the Los Angeles Trial Board.” On July 18 the Los Angeles Trial Board’s report was presented during another Executive Committee session. “It was moved and carried that the report be received and its recommendation, as follows, adopted: That S. Boehm be suspended indefinitely from all rights and privileges of the American Kennel Club the same to take effect immediately.”
But AKC wasn’t finished. The August Gazette ran a lengthy editorial justifying for the outcome, followed by several pages of testimony from the June 22 trial. They did not share the article that had sparked this contentious incident, instead quoting statements to which AKC “particularly objected.”
Here’s a sampling:
“The AKC has developed into an institution that seems to look up on the dog game as an easy source from which to draw money.”
“Conditions prevail that are absolutely unbelievable. The majority of American fanciers acknowledge this.”
“The AKC is of no use to the average fancier.”
The writer qualified that remark, saying that registrations were the only benefit he’d derived from the organization – and he paid for this service. He specifically questioned why small specialty clubs were charged $50 licensing fees, a considerable sum back then, and receiving no tangible benefits in return. Admittedly, Boehm’s tone verged on volatile, but he raised timely issues. They were especially pertinent to West Coast fanciers who felt completely disconnected from AKC. Boehm wasn’t the only fancier baffled by its contradictory policies and erratic enforcement of rules. Pointing out that some violations received draconian penalties, while others were ignored; he added that many infractions resulted rampant clerical errors by AKC staff, a fact that never seemed to merit consideration. He made rather blunt comparisons between dictatorial government regimes and AKC’s autocratic manner. Even so, by today’s standards, Boehm’s rant seems tame. But AKC was determined to discourage similar journalistic criticism. They retaliated.
Then as now, AKC never suffered a lawyer shortage. When presenting the matter to Gazette readers, they repeatedly emphasized that, “The trial was based not upon the defendant’s criticism of the AKC, but on statements that appeared in Dogdom.” The relative impartiality of AKC trial boards remains a perennial source of debate. In this case, the Los Angeles Trial Board consisted of Al Christy and John Sinnott, chaired by Freeman Ford. They utilized the classic defamation strategy of proving that Boehm’s statements were false and therefore legally actionable. That was obviously the point AKC sought to illustrate when they published this transcript. However, it revealed much more than they bargained for.
They requested that Boehm submit evidence supporting the veracity of his statements.
Instead, he brought five witnesses to testify at his hearing – and he had plenty to say. Like AKC, he used the typical legal defense, contending that his comments were editorial opinion. “The AKC now attempts to deprive me of my privileges not because I have broken one of their many rules, nor because I have committed a fraud, but because I have stated my opinions to the press – and it did not suit the AKC.” Christy responded saying, “I don’t think they mind your opinion, as much as they mind your printing your opinion – broadcasting it.”
That pretty much set the pace for this candid, sometimes comical, documented exchange. More than once, the testimony veered into that discomfort zone about the vague parameters that separate defamation, justified criticism, and the constitutional right to free speech. They sensibly avoided suggesting that Boehm had malicious intent, instead accusing him of inadequately researching the issue before launching his editorial blitzkrieg.
One witness, Z. B. West, admitted that Boehm might have gone a bit overboard, but also took the opportunity to complain about his personally frustrating experiences with the AKC registration department. “AKC clerical and detail work is very unsatisfactory… it seems to me there are grounds for a good deal of criticism of the detail work as it is handled… For example, it took me eight months to get one bitch registered and transferred, meanwhile two wins were cancelled. It took six months to register a litter brother to the bitch.” He cited plenty of detail to support his claim. The trial board wasn’t prepared for that topical detour. They reluctantly concurred that there was room for improvement, and eased through that awkward impasse with a bit of that vintage whine, “good help is hard to find.”
Pasadena breeder/judge Kyle Onstott, the era’s perpetual voice of restraint and reason, also appeared on Boehm’s behalf. “I would like to say that sentences taken out of context do not furnish a particularly good interpretation of the purpose or intent of the article.” His remarks sent the discussion off topic again as they debated the average fancier’s access to AKC rules pertaining to registration procedures and dog show regulations. Bohem chimed in to say that complete information was not readily available since that required purchasing the Gazette “at a fee.”
Another witness, Dr. Frank Porter Miller of Los Angeles, admitted that some rules were needlessly complicated and could seem unfair, “when a specialty club puts on a show of 11 dogs and pays fifty dollars… the article was a little raw, a little bold, but primarily there was a lot of truth in what was said… we should not condemn the opinion of a man.” Then as now, AKC rules were constantly revised and amended, and constituents often had trouble following the plot, especially since AKC did not publish a complete set of rules until November, 1932.
In September the Gazette ran another lengthy editorial. “Since the Boehm case, the American Kennel Club has received an astonishingly large number of letters complimenting the Club upon the verdict.” However, the surprisingly conciliatory tone suggests that those letters touched on a few more issues. Rather than rattling sabers, they brandished an olive branch. Entitled An Invitation to the Press, it stressed AKC’s commitment to transparency.
“Without thorough knowledge, no one can write with intelligence upon any subject. Take the American Kennel Club for example.” It goes on to say that few writers bother to ascertain the facts. “As a rule, he knows very little about the problems that confront the American Kennel Club and its officers. Quite often, he knows very little about dogs. Still, he plunges eagerly into the subject, and offers a lot of suggestions and changes that he believes will be beneficial to the sport, but in reality, are impractical and impossible in operation.” That observation is equally valid today. Misinformation in the mainstream media has fostered a deep rooted and possibly irreparable anti-AKC bias.
“Why these conditions exist has no bearing upon the subject. The American Kennel Club acknowledges that they do exist. And it is anxious to have them altered so writers will get firsthand information regarding the organization.” AKC summed up by suggesting that major publications arrange for regular press visits to AKC headquarters in order to ensure accurate reporting about touchy issues like their obsession with legislative detail, and the reasons for perpetual clerical delays. Registrations totaled roughly 800,000, and the article noted that back in the day when half as many were on file, “business moved considerably smoother than it does today.” Rather ominously, readers were warned that they were approaching the one million mark and, “the situation will become impossible if additional changes are not made in the system employed by the Club.”
AKC eventually reconsidered its harsh verdict against Boehm. His privileges were reinstated and, somewhat paradoxically, he carved out a successful career as a Gazette feature writer. As predicted, registrations soon passed that fateful milestone of one million in 1935. That lucky dog, a Sheltie appropriately called Sheltieland Alice Grey Gown, and his owner, Miss Catherine Edwards Coleman, attended a grand ceremony at AKC headquarters to mark the occasion.
It took half a century to reach that goal, which obviously wasn’t sufficient time to improve procedures to handle the volume of business. Nor did that happen during the next two decades as registrations surpassed five million. By then, AKC was immersed in phenomenal post-war growth. Annual registrations exceeding one million became routine. Since then, AKC has continually overhauled and streamlined procedures to achieve their time honored goal of efficient customer service. A century later it still seems perpetually out of reach.
Although its overall growth has slowed, in my opinnion, AKC never ceases to revise the map with new breeds and events – and endlessly changing rules. I think Boehm would likely cringe to see the current complexity of regulations governing AKC participants. This information is certainly more accessible, but to me that’s the upshot of internet technology rather than any drastic revisions in AKC philosophy. As always, it seems its commitment to transparency waxes and wanes along with the mood of the board. This might not ease your concerns about AKC management. But keep it in mind the next time you feel completely frustrated about your slow progress toward a personal goal.