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Howell v. Blecharczyck

OPINION FILED DECEMBER 1, 1983.

EDWARD C. HOWELL ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,

v.

STEPHEN S. BLECHARCZYCK ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. William O'Connell, Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE LINN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Rehearing denied January 5, 1984.

Plaintiffs, a group of candidates who represented the Concerned Citizens Party (C.C.P.) in a recent municipal election, instituted a libel action in the circuit court of Cook County against defendants, the board of directors of the Hazel Crest Forum, a volunteer, nonpartisan citizens' group organized to promote fair elections in the village of Hazel Crest, Illinois. The trial court granted defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings, whereupon plaintiffs filed a two-count amended complaint, count I charging defendants with libel per se by pleading that the Forum's published statement had damaged plaintiffs in their profession or calling, and count II adding an allegation of special damages. The trial court dismissed the amended complaint with prejudice.

Plaintiffs now appeal, maintaining that the trial court erred in dismissing their complaint because (1) the challenged statements were libel per se, therefore negating the necessity of pleading special damages, (2) they were statements of fact and therefore not protected under the first amendment, (3) the words used were not susceptible to a nondefamatory interpretation under the innocent construction rule, and (4) the electorate's right to be protected from malicious falsehoods outweighs the defendants' right of free speech.

We affirm the decision of the trial court.

FACTS

This action arose out of events that occurred during the 1981 village election campaign in Hazel Crest, Illinois. Plaintiffs were candidates slated by the C.C.P., while defendants were officers of the Hazel Crest Forum. The Forum, a nonpartisan, volunteer organization formed with the assistance of the League of Women Voters, encouraged people to run for local office, provided opportunities for candidates to express their views to large gatherings of voters, and obtained pledges from the candidates to conduct fair, honest, and dignified campaigns.

One of the Forum's major activities was its sponsorship of several "Candidates' Nights," public meetings at which voters were given an opportunity to hear the various candidates speak on several issues of local importance. As a condition of participation in any of the Forum-sponsored activities, all candidates, including plaintiffs, signed a "Candidate Fair Campaign Pledge," which read as follows:

"The purpose of this pledge is to insure that each candidate who participates in the Forum conducts a fair, honest and dignified campaign.

I, [candidate's name], pledge the following:

1. to address the campaign and all issues objectively and with factual information.

4. to file a copy of all campaign materials intended for distribution with the Forum Board of Directors prior to distribution.

I pledge to conduct my campaign honestly, and I understand that any violation of this pledge will be made public by the Forum."

On April 6, 1981, the Forum, in accordance with the closing line of the pledge, distributed the following flier, which contained the language at issue in this case. After summarizing the nonpartisan goals of the Forum and noting the first and fourth ...


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