Newspaper Escapes Defamation Suit by Former Judge — Chicago Defamation Libel and Slander Attorneys Near Oak Brook

A former judge of the Illinois circuit court sued a reporter and a newspaper, accusing them of defamation and false light for publishing an article in which a law professor was quoted as stating that the judge was “corrupt as the day is long” in relation to the judge’s practices when handling asbestos litigation. The Illinois Appellate Court found that the statement was protected speech as an ordinary reader would consider it to be hyperbole.

Heather Gvillo, a reporter for the Madison County Record wrote an article in September 2014 concerning asbestos litigation which recently concluded in the Madison County circuit courts. The article quoted Darren McKinney, Communications Director for the American Tort Reform Association, who stated that Madison County’s reputation as an unfriendly venue for defendants in asbestos-related litigation was due to the actions of Nicolas G. Byron, then a judge in the circuit court. The article went on to state that McKinney believed Byron to be shamelessly plaintiff-friendly, and that Byron allegedly designed a docket in order to beat defendants into submission prior to going to trial, by scheduling trial slots for a single defendant in multiple cases on a single day, resulting in the inability of defendants to prepare for trial. This allegedly led to defendants deciding to settle their cases.

After the quotes from McKinney, the article contained a statement attributed to Lester Brickamn that Byron was “corrupt as the day is long.” The article then noted that, when running for re-election in 2002, Byron received $65,750 in campaign donations from asbestos plaintiff lawyers. The article also noted that Byron docketed nearly 1,000 asbestos related cases in 2003, which set a record. Byron later sued the Record, Gvillo, and Brickman, for defamation and false light. In the circuit court, Gvillo and the Record filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the statement that Byron was “corrupt as the day is long,” was a rhetorical phrase protected by the First Amendment, and the statement was not actionable under the innocent construction rule or the neutral reporting privilege. The circuit court agreed with the motion to dismissing, finding that the statement in the article was protected speech. Byron then appealed.

The Illinois Appellate Court panel began by analyzing whether Brickman’s statement was protected by the First Amendment. The panel stated that the appropriate test was whether the statement could reasonably be interpreted as stating actual fact. Citing Coghlan v. Beck, the panel stated that the language of Brickman’s statement was precisely the type of language that the Illinois Appellate Court had previously held to be protected by the First Amendment. The panel further found that the fact that the word “corrupt” has a negative connotation is irrelevant to the legal standards that have been articulated by the Illinois courts for determining whether a statement is protected by the First Amendment. The panel found that the literary context for Brickman’s statement is readily apparent when reading the article and that the article contained no reference to illegal conduct or violations of ethics rules. The panel concluded that considering the context, an ordinary reader would view the statement as a hyperbolic or exaggerated recharacterization of Byron’s activities as laid out in the article, rather than an independent fact with a precisely understood meaning. The panel determined, therefore, that the statement was protected speech, and it affirmed the decision of the circuit court.

You can view the decision here.

Our Oak Brook and Naperville Cyber Smear and Internet Defamation Attorneys also represent and prosecute claims on behalf of businesses throughout the Chicago area including in Evanston and Kenilworth who have been unfairly and falsely criticized by consumers and competitors in defamatory publications in the online and offline media. We have successfully represented businesses who have been the victim of competitors setting up false rating sites and pretend consumer rating sites that are simply forums to falsely bash or business clients. We have also represented and defended consumers First Amendment and free speech rights to criticize businesses who are guilty of consumer fraud and false advertising.

Super Lawyers named Chicago and Oak Brook business trial attorney Peter Lubin a Super Lawyer in the Categories of Class Action, Business Litigation, and Consumer Rights Litigation and Chicago slander attorney Patrick Austermuehle a Rising Star. Lubin Austermuehle’s Oak Brook and Chicago business trial lawyers have over thirty years of experience in litigating complex class action, consumer rights, and business and commercial litigation disputes. We handle emergency business lawsuits involving injunctions and TROs, defamation, libel, and covenant not to compete, franchise, distributor and dealer wrongful termination and trade secret lawsuits and many different kinds of business disputes involving shareholders, partnerships, closely held businesses and employee breaches of fiduciary duty. We also assist businesses and business owners who are victims of fraud or defamatory attacks on their business and reputations.

Lubin Austermuehle’s Chicago defamation and slander lawyers near Northbrook and Hinsdale have more than three decades of experience helping business clients unravel the complexities of Illinois and out-of-state business laws. Our Chicago business, commercial, class-action, and consumer litigation lawyers represent individuals, family businesses and enterprises of all sizes in a variety of legal disputes, including disputes among partners and shareholders as well as lawsuits between businesses and consumer rights, auto fraud, and wage claim individual and class action cases. In every case, our goal is to resolve disputes as quickly and successfully as possible, helping business clients protect their investments and get back to business as usual. From offices in Chicago, Elmhurst, and Evanston near St. Charles and Deerfield, we serve clients throughout Illinois and the Midwest.  You can contact us online here or call us on our toll-free number at 833-306-4933 or locally at 630-333-0333.