Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Illinois Supreme Court Reverses Appellate Court on Defamation Claim

While refusing to abandon the innocent construction rule, the Illinois Supreme Court has reversed the finding of an appellate court that statements complained of as defamatory were capable of a "reasonable innocent construction" and has remanded the case to a trial court. In Tuite v. Corbitt, the plaintiff had alleged that in the book Double Deal the defendants had made statements about him that were defamatory per se "because they impute to him criminal wrongoing, a want of integrity as an officer of the court, a want of integrity in the performance of his ethical duties as an attorney, and an inability to perform his professional duties as a criminal defense attorney....Tuite alleged that publication of the statement was wilful and wanton and damaged his reputation as an attorney and as an officer of the court." Tuite also alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress and false light invasion of privacy. The trial court dismissed, and the appellate court affirmed the judgment. One of the appellate judges "disagreed with the majority's conclusion that the statements were subject to a reasonable innocent construction....In Justice Wolfson's view, "[t]he clear message is that Tuite was ready and able to fix the case, that he was paid to fix it, and that he did not deliver, something that should have caused a premature end to his life. It takes more than a `strain' to apply an innocent meaning to the offending words. It takes a gyration of Olympian proportion.'"


The Court analyzed the application of the innocent construction rule. "The innocent construction rule originated in Illinois from obiter dictum....We observed that one of the early justifications for the rule was that it mitigated the harshness of strict liability that existed in defamation law prior to Gertz v. Robert Welch....The strongest rationale for the rule, however, was that it comported with the constitutional interests of free speech and free press and encouraged the robust discussion of daily affairs....The primary criticism of the rule was that courts had a tendency to strain to find an unnatural innocent meaning for a statement when an innocent construction was clearly unreasonable and a defamatory meaning was far more probable...."

The Court considered all of Tuite's arguments in favor of abandoning the innocent construction rule, including that appellate courts misapply it and that it is thus unworkable, but declined to do so. Instead, the Court said, "[T]his court has held that the innocent construction rule advances the constitutional interests of free speech and free press and encourages the robust discussion of daily affairs....The rule applies only to claims of defamation per se, and it is justified due to the presumption of damages....We conclude that the rationale underlying the rule remains valid. Tuite has not established the good cause or compelling reason required for this court to depart from stare decisis."


However, the Court then went on to consider the application of the rule in this case and found it misapplied. Discussing the use of specific words as well as the message of the book as a whole, the Court said, "Defendants maintain that it is reasonable to accept the innocent construction that Tuite was hired on the basis of his legal skills. We disagree. The isolated use of those terms does not control the meaning of the excerpt. The context of the book as a whole significantly colors those terms. Importantly, this book is not about hiring a lawyer or complimenting Tuite's skills as an attorney. The book is a series of stories about corruption, including corruption within the judicial system. It is not reasonable to believe defendants intended to convey a story about Tuite's trial skills given the context of the book as a whole. It is far more reasonable to believe defendants intended to convey a story about corruption.

"Defendants further argue that they explicitly accused other people of criminal misconduct....Tuite, however, was not explicitly accused....Defendants, therefore, contend that the excerpt is capable of a reasonable innocent construction. We agree that Tuite was not explicitly accused....Based on the wording of the excerpt along with the context of the book as a whole, we believe that a reasonable reader would most likely conclude this passage was intended to allude to bribery and corruption of the judicial system....There is simply no basis for a reasonable reader to believe that defendants implicity intended to compliment Tuite's trial skills in the middle of a book about organized crime and corruption."


"Finally, Tuite's false light invasion of privacy claim was based upon the defamatory per se nature of the statements....Because we reverse the dismissal of Tuite's defamation per se claim, it follows that the dismissal of his false light invasion of privacy claim must also be reversed."

Read the entire opinion here.

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