Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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In 2011, a Freeport Journal Standard reader “Fuboy” commented on an online publication of the Standard’s article about local county board candidate Bill Hadley. Fuboy compared Hadley to “Sandusky” and noted that Hadley’s residence was adjacent to an elementary school. Hadley brought a defamation suit and sought information about Fuboy, based on his IP address. Fuboy objected to the release of this information. The Supreme Court of Illinois remanded the case after it applied the elements of defamation to Fuboy’s statements and held that Hadley’s complaint has successfully established a cause for defamation.
In December 2011, the Freeport Journal Standard published a newspaper article online. Readers were able to post comment about this article, which was on plaintiff Bill Hadley’s county board candidacy. The day after the article was posted, a reader calling himself “Fuboy” posted, “Hadley is a Sandusky waiting to be exposed. Check out the view he has of Empire from his front door.” [para. 2] The comment was a reference to Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State football coach who was conviction of sexually abusing numerous children. Fuboy made another comment that referenced a suicide attempt by Hadley.
In 2012, Hadley brought a defamation suit against the Freeport Journal Standard’s parent company Gatehouse Media (Gatehouse) in the Stephenson County Circuit Court. Gatehouse obtained Fuboy’s Internet Protocol (IP) address from his service provider, Comcast Cable Communications LLC (Comcast). Gatehouse gave Fuboy’s IP address to Hadley, and then the court granted Gatehouse’s motion to remove the case to federal court. In federal court, Hadley subpoenaed Comcast to provide information about the individual assigned to Fuboy’s IP address. Though Comcast obtained the individual’s information, it would not turn over this information without a court order. Hadley motioned that the court direct Comcast to turn over this information, and the federal court granted this motion. In addition to granting the motion, the federal court also gave the Comcast subscriber the ability to challenge the subpoena, which he exercised soon after by filing a motion to quash via an attorney.
Later that year, Hadley filed a defamation suit against “Fuboy” in Circuit Court. Hadley also subpoenaed Comcast for the information regarding its subscriber “Fuboy,” based on his IP address. The circuit court ordered Comcast to comply with the subpoena, on the condition that it notified its subscriber, who would have 21 days to challenge this subpoena. Fuboy’s attorney filed a motion to quash. Pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rules, Hadley amended his complaint and filed an order requiring that Comcast disclose Fuboy’s identity, which the circuit court granted. The appellate court affirmed the circuit court’s decision and found Fuboy’s statement to be defamatory per se.
After resolving other procedural issues, the court considered defamation as a threshold matter. For a defamation action, the plaintiff must show that “the defendant made a false statement about the plaintiff, the defendant made an unprivileged publication of that statement to a third party, and the publication caused damages […] A defamatory statement is one that harms a person’s reputation because it lowers the person in the eyes of others or deters others from associating with her or him.” [para. 30] If a statement’s harm is evident on its face, then the statement is defamatory per se, which is divided into five categories including “word imputing the commission of a crime.” [para. 30]
A statement that is classified as defamatory per se is not actionable if the statement is covered by the innocent construction rule. Under this rule, the courts consider the statement’s potential innocent construction and view the statement through the lens of a “reasonable reader,” and determine if the author clearly conveyed or intended a message with a defamatory meaning. Similarly, an allegedly defamatory statement that is hyperbole, opinion, or humor will only be constitutionally protect if the statement cannot be reasonably construed as presenting an actual fact. A statement’s classification as fact is determined by considering three factors. Namely, the statement’s understood meaning, the statement’s verifiability, and if the statement’s alleged factual nature is signified by its social or literary context. The court found that Fuboy’s statements were not presented as opinion as he asserted, but rather, presented as fact.
Fuboy argued that Hadley did not show that reader would perceive Fuboy’s use of “Sandusky” to have a defamatory meaning, as required by the defamatory per se standard. Hadley countered that, in light of national events at the time, Fuboy implied that Hadley was a child abuser who lived near an elementary school. The court agreed with the appellate court, which had taken judicial notice of the sexual abuse scandal involving Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky, which was widely reported by national media. Giving Fuboy’s words “their natural and obvious meaning” at that particular time, the court found that Fuboy’s statements referencing both the local elementary school and Sandusky were intended to imply to reasonable readers that Hadley was a pedophile, even though this was not explicitly stated. [para. 37] The court rejected Fuboy’s arguments of innocent construction and found that a defamatory reading was more reasonable. Therefore, the court found that Hadley’s complaint had successfully established a cause of action for defamation. The court affirmed the appellate court’s judgment and it remanded the case for proceedings consistent with its present opinion.
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