APPEAL from the Appellate Court for the First District; heard
in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County;
the Hon. NICHOLAS J. BUA, Judge, presiding.
MR. JUSTICE SCHAEFER DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
The plaintiff, George Suchomel, brought this action for libel against several defendants, among them Suburban Life Newspapers, Inc., and one of its reporters, Karl Bell. The circuit court of Cook County granted the motion of the named defendants for summary judgment, and the appellate court affirmed. (84 Ill. App.2d 239.) We granted leave to appeal.
Several issues are argued in this court, but we find it necessary to consider only, (1) whether the plaintiff, who was Sergeant of Police and Juvenile Officer of the Village of Countryside, was a "public official" within the decision of the United States Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), 376 U.S. 254, 11 L.Ed.2d 686, 84 S.Ct. 710, and (2) if he was, whether the record discloses the existence of a genuine issue of fact as to whether the defendants published and alleged libel with "actual malice," as that term was defined in the New York Times case.
In his complaint, Suchomel alleged that the defendants, "well knowing the premises, but wickedly and maliciously intending to injure [him] * * * and to bring him in public disgrace and scandal, * * * wickedly and maliciously composed and published * * * a certain false, scandalous, malicious and defamatory libel * * *" in the form of a front-page newspaper article. He further alleged that the statements contained in the article were "libelous per se and actionable as a matter of law." The full text of the article follows:
"CITY POLICEMAN ACCUSED OF BURGLARY [headline]
Countryside Sergeant Denies Charges Brought Before City Council [sub-headline] By Karl Bell
For the second time in three months Countryside's police force was placed into the limelight Wednesday when, after a city council meeting, a resident read a statement reportedly received from an area woman who contended, among other things, that Sgt. George Suchomel had twice within the past year, and while on duty made break-ins in the trailer court which is in the city.
According to the statement read by Robert J. Brinkman, 5339 Kensington, the woman, a divorcee and mother of two, also charges that the two often spent `from one to seven hours' together when the sergeant was supposed to be on the night shift and they spent time drinking liquor in the squad car.
Sgt. Suchomel denied all the charges.
Brinkman refused to identify the writer, although requested by Mayor Melvin F. Eggert. Brinkman stated that her identity has been known to the mayor and to Police Chief John Girard for weeks.
In the statement read by Brinkman, the letter writer claims that the sergeant in uniform and using the squad car, would pick her up and then they would drive to a tavern where he would buy liquor which they would share as they sat in the police car.
The woman contends, according to Brinkman, that Sgt. Suchomel would ignore radio calls and often would lie about the location of the squad car.
Also stated was that several times the sergeant fired his weapon into the air `for no apparent reason' and that he had twice broken into residences in the trailer court in Countryside.
The letter writer also was quoted as stating that she had informed the sheriff's police about the sergeant's activities and that she later denied them ...