Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Friday, July 8, 2005

Federal Appeals Court Affirms Dismissal of Defamation Claim Against Chicago Sun-Times

Plaintiff Karla Knafel objected to the following words that Chicago Sun-Times reporter Richard Roeper wrote about her and her relationship with Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan: "...[t]here are some women who see a famous horny guy, blink their eyes and hear the ka-ching of a cash register. Women like Karla Knafel....Knafel was once an aspiring singer. She's now reportedly a hair designer. But, based on the money she's been paid already and the additional funds she's seeking in exchange for her affair with Jordan, she's making herself sound like someone who once worked in a profession that's a lot older than singing or hair designing." Knafel claimed that the words complained of were suspetible of only one construction. On that basis she sued for defamation. The Sun-Times and Sun-Times Online moved to dismiss and the lower court granted the motion. The appellate court heard the case de novo. It first established the relevant Illinois law: "...a statement which falls into a category supporting a claim for defamation per se will not be found to be defamatory if it `reasonably capable of an innocent construction.'" Next it considered Knafel's claim that the dismissal was improper because "the innocent construction rule cannot be applied on a motion to dismiss in federal court" and that the lower court judge "looked to matters outside the pleadings in making her decision, thus converting the motion to a motion for summary judgment without giving notice and allowing Knafel time to engage in discovery."

The court considered that there was an innocent interpretation of Roeper's words other than he intended to accuse Knapel of prostitution. "We see two significant concepts in this passage [the passage quoted above]. Roeper says Knafel was having an "affair" with Jordan. It is reasonable to interpret that word to imply a longer term relationship than is contemplated in the Illinois definiation of prostitution. Secondly, as we said, despite the reluctance of counsel for the SUn-Times to concede the obvious at oral argument, Roeper almost certainly refers to prostitution when he talks about an "older" profession. But it is reasonable to read the passage as saying that although Knafel was having an affair (i.e., a longer term relationship) with Jordan, by demanding so much money from him she is demeaning herself. Roeper does not say Knafel has committed the crime of prostitution but, rather, she is making herself sound like she has. The words "sound like" imply similarity, but not identity. In short, Roeper is hard on Knafel as revealed by the headline of the column: "Is Karla Knafel's affection really worth "5 million?" But his words are reasonably (and easily) subject to an innocent construction; i.e., one that stops short of saying she committed a crime."

With regard to the lower judge's use of use of matters outside the pleadings, the appellate court dismissed this objection. "Knafel's support for her Judge St. Eve's use of the phrases "non-disclosure agreement" and "non-disclosure contract" to describe the agreement between Knafel and Jordan; the argument seems to be that the Cook County judge used the phrases; therefore, because Judge St. Eve also used the phrases, she must have considered the Cook County decision--a matter outside the pleading--in her evaluation of this case. The argument is an air ball. A nondisclosure agreement is what was involved between Knafel and Jordan. How else was the district judge to refer to it? We're quite sure the judge could have come up with the language all by herself."

Read the opinion here.

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Tracked on Jan 12, 2007 5:14:44 AM