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Britton v. Winfield Public Library

OPINION FILED NOVEMBER 9, 1981.

RICHARD M. BRITTON, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

THE WINFIELD PUBLIC LIBRARY ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Du Page County; the Hon. HELEN KINNEY, Judge, presiding.

MR. PRESIDING JUSTICE SEIDENFELD DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Plaintiff, the former Winfield village administrator, filed a complaint against the defendants on May 20, 1980, for libel per se as the result of the publication on November 21, 1979, of the following letter composed and approved by the defendants and addressed to local newspapers and members of the village and library boards:

"In the November 14, 1979 issue of The Examiner there appeared an article in which it was stated `Winfield Village officials have expressed some concern about the upcoming November 17 referendum in which voters will decide on the issuance of public library building bonds'.

Although we respect and expect that our elected Village officials be concerned with any project involving our Village and increases in taxes, we expected and would have appreciated having these concerns expressed to the Winfield Library Board of Directors. This would have allowed us to satisfy any questions.

The Library Board, along with its attorney, architect and financial consultant, attended several meetings of the Board of Trustees in order to answer questions. None of the concerns outlined in the November 14, 1979 article were raised by any of the trustees at these meetings.

We as a Board do not feel we were treated fairly by your expressing these concerns without giving us a chance to answer before the referendum was held.

In checking on the article, we found that Mr. R. Britton, Village Administrator, called the press release into the Examiner on Monday, November 12. This type of cheap and dishonest government is not needed nor should be allowed in the Village of Winfield.

Mr. Britton was so concerned about the future of the Village, in which he does not reside nor pay taxes, that he made himself a spokesman for the other Village officials who are all residents and tax payers, and resorted to `dirty tricks'.

Therefore, the Winfield Library Board of Directors asks that Mr. Britton be reprimanded, instructed as to proper procedures in dealing with the press and publicly apologize so that honest and upright government can come back to our Village.

Passed by motion, Winfield Library Board of Directors November 21, 1979."

Plaintiff's complaint alleged, in substance, that the words concerning plaintiff in the letter were false, malicious and defamatory, imputing plaintiff's want of skill and integrity, dishonesty, collusion and conspiracy to violate statutes and ordinances for personal gain; were published concerning plaintiff in his capacity as a public official, and falsely and maliciously impugned plaintiff's ability and fitness to serve the community in a position of trust; charged plaintiff with dishonest, illegal conduct, and with fraudulent and unethical practices, and with collusion and conspiracy to defraud the taxpayers and residents of the Village of Winfield.

It further alleged that defendants made such statements knowing that they were false; that the statements prejudiced plaintiff and injured his reputation for honesty, integrity and ability in the performance of his duties as a public official and the conduct of his business as a village administrator; and that they subjected plaintiff in his capacity as a public official and in his capacity as a village administrator to public hatred, contempt, ridicule and distrust.

The defendants' amended motion to dismiss with prejudice, filed pursuant to section 45 of the Civil Practice Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 110, par. 45), raised three legal defenses to the complaint: failure to allege actual malice, the rule of innocent construction, and privilege and fair comment. The court granted the motion, basing the decision on the rule of innocent construction, and plaintiff's timely filed notice of appeal limited the issue to the court's finding that the letter was not actionable because it came within that rule.

• 1 Essentially the rule of innocent construction provides that an allegedly defamatory writing must be read as a whole and the words given their natural and obvious meaning, and that all words which could be libelous that are capable of being read innocently must be so read and declared ...


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