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Lundstrom v. Winnebago Newspapers

SEPTEMBER 21, 1960.

MILTON A. LUNDSTROM, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

WINNEBAGO NEWSPAPERS, INC., A DELAWARE CORPORATION, E. KENNETH TODD, JOHN W. GRIMES AND C. HJALMAR NELSON, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Winnebago county; the Hon. WILLIAM R. DUSHER, Judge, presiding. Judgment affirmed. DOVE, J.

The complaint in this case alleged that on January 23, 1958 the Rockford Morning Star a newspaper of general circulation in Rockford, Illinois, published by defendant, Winnebago Newspapers Inc., contained the following false and defamatory charge of and concerning the plaintiff, viz: "WHO GOT $7,000 IN BAR DEAL?" (directly underneath this headline was a photograph of the plaintiff and two other persons and below these newspaper cuts the following article appeared)

"Carl Calacurcio, left photo, 604 15th Ave., testified before the city liquor commission Wednesday afternoon that he received $7,000 from James E. Virgili for a city liquor license after Calacurcio took Virgili to the office of former Mayor Milton A. Lundstrom, center photo, last April and arranged for Virgili to receive a license which had been surrendered by the Ken-Rock Legion post. Calacurcio testified that he retained $850 of the money and gave $5,800 to Carroll H. Johnson, right photo, who then was serving as a member of the city zoning board. Johnson, under oath denied that he received the money."

The complaint then alleged that in its issue of January 25, 1958 the same newspaper published the following front page story, viz: "LUNDSTROM ISSUED MYSTERY LICENSE ILLEGALLY: COLLINS"

"Former Mayor Milton A. Lundstrom had no authority to issue a city liquor license last April 17 to James E. Virgili, who says he paid $7,000 for a class A license after Ken-Rock Legion post had surrendered a Class D. license to Lundstrom."

The complaint further alleged that on February 5, 1958 the following false and defamatory charge of and concerning the plaintiff was published, viz:

"The former mayor (meaning the plaintiff) had showed astounding laxity in enforcing city and state statutes, particularly as concerned the sale of liquor to minors.

"The liquor commission (which Schleicher now heads as mayor) now handles things out in the open. Tavern operators now know that liquor sales to minors will not be tolerated. We also are engaged in tightening the entire liquor code.

"The issuance by the former mayor (meaning the plaintiff) of a city liquor license after $7,000 had changed hands will remain fresh in the minds of Rockford folk for a long time, Schleicher said.

"He said tavern operators, with their investments at stake, have demonstrated `favorable response' to viligant liquor law enforcement."

The complaint then alleged that the plaintiff was Mayor of the City of Rockford and as such the Liquor Commissioner of the City from 1953 through 1957 inclusive; that the article of February 5, 1958 was a continuation of the defamatory articles of the previous articles of January 23 and January 25, 1958 and were published by defendants with the intent to injure plaintiff in his good name and reputation and that as a result of such publication plaintiff was held in public contempt and his good name and reputation injured and damaged.

To this complaint the corporation filed its separate motion to dismiss and the individual defendants filed a similar motion. These motions were heard and sustained by the trial court. The plaintiff elected to abide his complaint and the same was dismissed and from an appropriate final judgment plaintiff appeals.

Counsel for appellant state that the only question presented upon this appeal for our determination is whether the sentence in the publication of February 5, 1958 is libelous. This sentence states that Mayor Schleicher said: "The issuance by the former mayor of a city license after $7000.00 had changed hands will remain fresh in the minds of Rockford folk for a long time." It is counsel's contention that this sentence is libelous per se; that it carries an imputation of lack of integrity; that it charges plaintiff with complicity in accepting a bribe and that the natural and obvious meaning of the words used is that the plaintiff, the former mayor, issued the liquor license referred to as a result of $7,000.00 being paid to some friend of the plaintiff, with the knowledge of the plaintiff, as a consideration for the issuance of the liquor license.

It is well settled that it is for the court to decide whether the publication was reasonably capable of the construction placed thereon by the plaintiff. In Dilling v. Illinois Pub. & Printing Co., 340 Ill. App. 303, 91 N.E.2d 635, it was insisted that the publication charged that the plaintiff was a communist or fascist. The trial court sustained a motion to dismiss the complaint and in affirming the judgment of the trial court, the appellate court, omitting the authorities cited, said: (pp. 305-6) "The sole question presented is whether the article complained of is libelous per se. Characterization of a person as a Communist and as an unAmerican disciple of fascism is libelous per se. The article is to be understood according to the natural and obvious meaning of the words used, taking into consideration the article as a whole and including headlines, and where the words used have a clear meaning and are free from ambiguity it is a question for the court whether the words are capable of the meaning ascribed for by the innuendo."

In LaGrange Press v. Citizen Pub. Co., 252 Ill. App. 482, the court, omitting citations, said: (p. 485) "In determining whether or not the published article is libelous per se, we must view it stripped of all innuendo, colloquium or extrinsic or explanatory circumstances, and if the words are unambiguous and incapable of an innocent meaning they may be declared libelous as a matter of law. In determining this, the words must be taken in the sense which readers of common and reasonable understanding would ascribe to them, that is, in their ordinary and common acceptation. `All the words in the article are to be considered, and when they are all considered together, the question is, how would they be understood by men of common and reasonable understanding?' The meaning of the words alleged to be libelous cannot be by innuendo extended beyond a reasonable construction. ...


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