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No Libel in Good Riddance

E-mail:  Illinois Appeals Court


Judges reaffirm Innocent

Construction Rule

 To make a public statement that embarrasses someone is not necessarily a violation of the defamation laws.  Recently the Illinois Appellate Court here in Chicago reminded us that defamation claims require something extra to be “actionable.”   An editor-in-chief sent the employer’s staff an e-mail after the chief executive officer was terminated, and although the ex-CEO cried foul, the court found that the following words were not libelous:  “It will be some time before we can undo the damage Tom Rose has wrought to our finances.”

 They sound derogatory enough, but Rose’s suit claimed the words constituted per se defamation, which in Illinois means that since the statement was so terrible Rose would not have to prove actual damage to his reputation to recover before a jury.  There are four categories of per se defamation.  One category covers words that are facts showing the plaintiff was incapable of performing his work, and a second category comprises words that show the plaintiff was a crook. 

 Rose’s complaint also had to demonstrate that the statement on trial was passed off as facts, not a mere opinion.  Had the e-mail announced “Rose was a real jerk” it would not have been defamation because it expressed an opinion, and “when it came to this newspaper’s finances Rose was a total jerk” would fare no better, even though the insult - that Rose was a “jerk” – was tied to a phase of the paper’s operations for which he was ultimately responsible as CEO.

 In adjudicating this case the court was bound to follow this State’s innocent construction rule: if the words in question can be interpreted with a non-derogatory meaning, there is no per se defamation.  In slander and libel claims judges often consult lexicons to analyze the interpretation of the words alleged to have been uttered or printed.  The appeals court held that “damage to finances,” to a reasonable reader of the e-mail, would not mean an actual fact.  It was not a phrase that possessed a precise and readily understood meaning.  Different readers could have different views after reading the e-mail.  The court also held that the statement was too broad, conclusory, and vague.

 Rather than being an asserted fact, the e mail was a “gloating. mean-spirited send-off.”

 Rose v. Hollinger International, ___IllApp3d___, 26 IER 1299 (1st Dist. 2007).