APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. PAUL F.
ELWARD, Judge, presiding.
MR. JUSTICE MCNAMARA DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
Plaintiffs, R.J. Adreani, H.L. Schwinge and J.W. Bernstein, brought an action for libel and invasion of privacy against defendants, Douglas W. Hansen and Pioneer Press, Inc., an Illinois corporation. The action was for statements contained in a letter to the editor written by Hansen and published in the Northbrook Star by Pioneer Press. The trial court granted defendants' motion to dismiss both counts of the complaint and plaintiffs appeal. (The trial court earlier had granted defendants' motion to dismiss counts III and IV of the complaint which alleged a conspiracy to injure plaintiffs' reputations and to influence certain condemnation proceedings. The order dismissing those counts is not involved in this appeal.)
Plaintiffs are builders and real estate developers. In 1969, plaintiffs were the beneficial owners of property which the Northbrook Park District sought to acquire for a leisure park project. A "disagreement" arose between plaintiffs and the park district concerning the fair market value of the property, and the park district instituted condemnation proceedings in the circuit court of Cook County.
While the condemnation proceedings were pending, the letter written by Hansen appeared in the June 13, 1974, edition of the Northbrook Star, a weekly newspaper owned and published by Pioneer Press. Hansen's letter, together with the headline supplied by Pioneer Press, read as follows:
"Resident hits developer greed in park hassle
NORTHBROOK In regards to the Lake Northbrook Leisure Park, it is a disgrace that the village of Northbrook has to go to court to get a few acres of badly needed park land from developers Joseph Bernstein, Herman Schwinge and Raymond Andreani [sic].
I am confident that the park district made a reasonable offer to the developers. It's just that some people show characteristics of pure greed with Bernstein, Schwinge and Andreani no exceptions. It's quite obvious that they'd rather develop all their land commercially for more profits rather than do a civic deed for the community. I'm sure it wouldn't hurt their already rich pocket book to accept the park district's offer.
In fact, I wonder how much money each of those developers earn each year. The way they bargain, they must be quite well off."
Count I of plaintiff's complaint charged that the letter was libelous of the good character and reputation of plaintiffs; that it caused them to suffer great humiliation, mental anguish and loss of esteem in the business community; and that the letter was written with malice. Plaintiffs alleged in count II that the publication invaded their right of privacy.
Pioneer filed a motion to dismiss the complaint claiming that neither count stated a cause of action. Hansen joined in this motion, adding that count I failed to allege "actual malice." On February 9, 1979, the trial court dismissed both counts of the complaint with prejudice.
Plaintiffs initially contend that count I of their complaint states a cause of action for libel per se.
1 To be libelous per se, a writing must contain a false statement which falls within certain categories of words. Among these categories are false statements which impute the inability to perform or want of integrity in the discharge of the duties of office or employment, and those which prejudice a particular party in his profession or trade. Bontkowski v. Chicago Sun-Times (1969), 115 Ill. App.2d 229, 252 N.E.2d 689.
Plaintiffs urge that several references in the letter fall within these categories of words deemed libelous per se. Among the portions which plaintiffs claim to be objectionable are the headline containing "developer greed," the comments "some people show characteristics of pure greed with Bernstein, Schwinge and Andreani no exceptions," and "it is a disgrace that the village of Northbrook has to go to court to get a few acres of badly needed park land * * *." Plaintiffs maintain that these passages accuse them of greed and disgraceful business practices, thereby damaging their business reputations and tainting future real estate transactions in which they might participate. They further contend that the letter falsely attacks their integrity, honesty, capacity and ability to carry on their professions as real estate developers.
2 Illinois courts> apply the "innocent construction rule" in determining whether writings are libelous. The rule directs that the writing "be read as a whole and the words given their natural and obvious meaning, and requires that words allegedly libelous that are capable of being read innocently must be so read and declared non-actionable as a matter of law." (John v. Tribune Co. (1962), 24 Ill.2d 437, 442, 181 N.E.2d 105, cert. denied (1962), 371 U.S. 877, 9 L.Ed.2d 114, 83 S.Ct. 149.) Under the rule, the headline must be read together with the body of the letter. (Reed v. Albanese (1966), 78 Ill. App.2d 53, 223 N.E.2d 419.) Whether the language is susceptible of an innocent construction is a question of law to be resolved by the ...