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Krauss v. Champaign News Gazette

OPINION FILED MAY 5, 1978.

FRED KRAUSS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

THE CHAMPAIGN NEWS GAZETTE, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Champaign County; the Hon. HAROLD L. JENSEN, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE CRAVEN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Plaintiff, Fred Krauss, sued defendant, The Champaign News Gazette, Inc., for libel following the publication of a certain article in the defendant's newspaper. The article *fn1 focused on alleged drug use by juveniles in the TARGET program, a program which was designed and directed by the plaintiff. Plaintiff alleged that the defendant published the article with actual malice; that the content of the article constituted libel per se in that it charged him with incompetence in his profession. Plaintiff asserted several respects in which the article constituted libel per se in that it charged him with incompetence in his profession. Plaintiff asserted several respects in which the article purported to injure him in the performance of his profession as a psychologist. We will discuss these in some detail later in the opinion.

• 1 The court allowed defendant's motion to dismiss expressing the opinion that the article was not of and concerning the plaintiff and that any specific reference to the plaintiff was capable of innocent construction. We affirm the action of the trial court and the judgment entered by it for the reasons stated by the trial court and for the additional reason that the article clearly comes within the ambit of the privilege of neutral reportage.

A robust and unintimidated press is a necessary ingredient of self-government. Since the ultimate sovereign in this country is an informed citizenry, we must have information available of and about public issues and about public figures upon which to make judgments as to public officials and public programs. We initiate and terminate programs through our chosen representatives based upon some determination of the worth, or lack of it, of those programs. Thus, the doctrine of neutral reportage gives bent to a privilege by the terms of which the press can publish items of information relating to public issues, personalities, or programs which need not be literally accurate. If the journalist believes, reasonably and in good faith, that his story accurately conveys information asserted about a personality or a program, and such assertion is made under circumstances wherein the mere assertion is, in fact, newsworthy, then he need inquire no further. Unless it is shown that the journalist deliberately distorts these statements to launch a personal attack of his own upon the public figure or the program, that which he reports under such circumstance is privileged. An excellent statement of the doctrine is found in Edwards v. National Audubon Society, Inc. (2d Cir. 1977), 556 F.2d 113. The statement of Judge Kaufman found there is one with which we are in total agreement, and his observations are most appropriate here. He stated:

"At stake in this case is a fundamental principle. Succinctly stated, when a responsible, prominent organization like the National Audubon Society makes serious charges against a public figure, the First Amendment protects the accurate and disinterested reporting of those charges, regardless of the reporter's private views regarding their validity. See Time, Inc. v. Pape, 401 U.S. 279, 91 S.Ct. 633, 28 L.Ed.2d 45 (1971); Medina v. Time, Inc., 439 F.2d 1129 (1st Cir. 1971). What is newsworthy about such accusations is that they were made. We do not believe that the press may be required under the First Amendment to suppress newsworthy statements merely because it has serious doubts regarding their truth. Nor must the press take up cudgels against dubious charges in order to publish them without fear of liability for defamation. Cf. Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241, 94 S.Ct. 2831, 41 L.Ed.2d 730 (1974). The public interest in being fully informed about controversies that often rage around sensitive issues demands that the press be afforded the freedom to report such charges without assuming responsibility for them.

The contours of the press's right of neutral reportage are, of course, defined by the principle that gives life to it. Literal accuracy is not a prerequisite: if we are to enjoy the blessings of a robust and unintimidated press, we must provide immunity from defamation suits where the journalist believes, reasonably and in good faith, that his report accurately conveys the charges made. Time, Inc. v. Pape, supra. It is equally clear, however, that a publisher who in fact espouses or concurs in the charges made by others, or who deliberately distorts these statements to launch a personal attack of his own on a public figure, cannot rely on a privilege of neutral reportage. In such instances he assumes responsibility for the underlying accusations. See Goldwater v. Ginzburg, 414 F.2d 324 (2d Cir. 1969), cert. denied, 396 U.S. 1049, 90 S.Ct. 701, 24 L.Ed.2d 695 (1970).

It is clear here, that Devlin reported Audubon's charges fairly and accurately. He did not in any way espouse the Society's accusations: indeed, Devlin published the maligned scientists' outraged reactions in the same article that contained the Society's attack. The Times article, in short, was the exemplar of fair and dispassionate reporting of an unfortunate but newsworthy contretemps. Accordingly, we hold that it was privileged under the First Amendment." 556 F.2d 113, 120.

• 2 While the action of the trial court can be affirmed for the reasons stated, the action can also be affirmed in that the article complained of can be read to comply with the innocent construction rule announced in John v. Tribune Co. (1962), 24 Ill.2d 437, 181 N.E.2d 105, cert. denied (1962), 371 U.S. 877, 9 L.Ed.2d 114, 83 S.Ct. 148. Thus, the statement in the article that the plaintiff devotes most of his time to public relations need not be given a derogatory connotation and indeed public relations could be a significant part of the program and plaintiff's job. Certainly, if characterizing an insurance salesman as "a lousy agent" can be excused under the doctrine of innocent construction, so then can the assertion in this article that plaintiff has an affinity for public relations. The allegations in the article that few staff members have professional qualifications in no way suggests that plaintiff is lacking in qualifications and must be read with hypersensitivity in order to reach such a conclusion. The same observation can be made with reference to an allegation that one of the staff members had been charged with a serious offense. Such appears to be in no way in derogation of plaintiff's program or abilities as a manager of the TARGET program.

Finally, the assertion that the article charged plaintiff with knowingly encouraging or permitting the use of drugs in the program is unfounded. We find in our reading of the article no assertion that the plaintiff "knowingly" encouraged or permitted drug use.

The judgment of the circuit court of Champaign County is affirmed.

Judgment affirmed.

MILLS, P.J., and TRAPP, J., concur.

APPENDIX "A"

Sunday, May 2, 1976 — THE CHAMPAIGN-URBANA ...


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