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.
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