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08/10/88 Carolyn Owens, v. Cbs

August 10, 1988




Before statements will be Judged defamatory as a matter of law, they must be considered in light of what has come to be known as the innocent-construction rule. (Owen v. Carr (1986), 113 Ill. 2d 273, 278, 497 N.E.2d 1145, 1147.) Under this rule, a written or oral statement is to be considered in context, with the words and the implications therefrom given their natural and obvious meaning. If, as so construed, the statement may be innocently interpreted or reasonably be interpreted as referring to someone other than the plaintiff, then it cannot be actionable per se. This preliminary determination is properly a question of law to be resolved by the court in the first instance. Whether the publication was in fact understood to be defamatory or to refer to the plaintiff is a question for the jury should the initial determination be resolved in favor of the plaintiff. 113 Ill. 2d at 279, 497 N.E.2d at 1147-48.


527 N.E.2d 1296, 173 Ill. App. 3d 977, 123 Ill. Dec. 521 1988.IL.1246

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County; the Hon. Horace Calvo, Judge, presiding.


PRESIDING JUSTICE HARRISON delivered the opinion of the court. KARNS and WELCH, JJ., concur.


In October of 1983, someone claiming to be Michael Brown of Centreville, Illinois, sent a letter to the White House threatening Ronald Reagan, the President of the United States, with assassination. Because the making of such threats constitutes a criminal offense under Federal law (see 18 U.S.C.A. § 871(a) (West Supp. 1988)), the U.S. Secret Service initiated an investigation of the matter. The Secret Service investigation was reported by KMOX-TV, a television station located in St. Louis, Missouri, and owned by defendant CBS, Inc. , in news broadcasts which aired at 5, 6, and 10 p.m. on November 23, 1983. During the course of the 6 and 10 p.m. broadcasts, defendant CBS repeated accusations by defendant Delores Brown, sister of Michael Brown, that the letter had actually been written by plaintiff, Carolyn Owens. Those accusations were false, and plaintiff subsequently sued both Brown and CBS for libel. Following a jury trial in the circuit court of Madison County, plaintiff was awarded $280,000 in compensatory damages on her claim against CBS and $30,000 in compensatory damages on her claim against Brown. Judgment was entered on the jury's verdict, and the post-trial motion filed by defendant CBS was denied. CBS alone now appeals.

As grounds for its appeal, CBS contends that it cannot be liable as a matter of law because: (1) under the so-called "innocent construction" rule, its 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts must be interpreted as not having libeled plaintiff; (2) the "gist" or "sting" of the 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts, considered as a whole, was true; and (3) the 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts fell within the protections of the "neutral reportage" doctrine. In the alternative, CBS asserts that even if it was properly found liable, it is nevertheless entitled to a new trial on the issue of damages because the jury's award is not supported by the evidence. For the reasons which follow, we find these contentions to be without merit. We therefore affirm.

Over the past two decades, physical assaults against national political leaders have become all too common. We are aware of no instance, however, in which the victim was forewarned of the attack by his assailant. (See United States v. Hoffman (7th Cir. 1986), 806 F.2d 703, 713, cert. denied (1987), 481 U.S. 1005, 95 L. Ed. 2d 201, 107 S. Ct. 1627.) Nevertheless, Congress has enacted legislation which provides:

"Whoever knowingly and willfully deposits for conveyance in the mail or for a delivery from any post office or by any letter carrier any letter, paper, writing, print, missive or document containing any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States . . . shall be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both." (18 U.S.C.A. § 871(a) (West Supp. 1988).)

Pursuant to 18 U.S.C.A. § 3056(b) (West 1985), the U.S. Secret Service is "authorized to detect and arrest" any person who violates this statute. A review of the case law reveals that the Federal government, with the aid of the Secret Service, has investigated and prosecuted numerous individuals under the statute during the Reagan administration.

The events which gave rise to this litigation centered on one such Secret Service investigation. The record shows that in late October 1983, a letter was mailed from Centreville, Illinois, to the White House in Washington, D.C., by someone claiming to be Michael Brown. In that letter, the author complained that President Reagan had not fulfilled his campaign promises. The author stated that he had been out of work for six months, and he threatened to kill the President, if necessary, to keep him from "doing any more harm to anyone else." After this letter was received in Washington, agents from the St. Louis, Missouri, office of the Secret Service were sent to Centreville to investigate. Centreville is a small community adjacent to East St. Louis in St. Clair County and is part of the St. Louis metropolitan area.

As we have indicated, the letter containing the death threat against President Reagan was signed by someone who claimed to be Michael Brown. The letter included Brown's correct home address, and early on the morning of November 23, 1983, the two Secret Service agents from St. Louis went there to question him. When the agents arrived at the house, Michael Brown was still asleep, and they were greeted at the door by Michael's sister, defendant Delores Brown. While another family member went to summon Michael, the agents showed a copy of the letter to Delores. Delores denied any knowledge of the letter, but told the agents that she thought the handwriting resembled that of plaintiff, Carolyn Owens, a neighbor. Eventually, Michael got out of bed and joined the group. Although he also denied knowledge of the letter, he was taken by the Secret Service agents to the Centreville police department, which was located in Centreville's city hall.

After the Secret Service agents left the house, defendant Delores Brown went to the home of Montra Cozart, a Centreville alderman. Delores related to Cozart what had happened at her home that morning. Upon hearing the story, Cozart apparently telephoned the offices of KMOX-TV, a television station located in St. Louis, Missouri. At the time of these events, KMOX-TV was owned by defendant CBS. CBS, through its agents at KMOX-TV, then sent news reporter Robin Smith and cameraman Gerry Dawes to Centreville to do a report on the Secret Service investigation. Smith and Dawes were both employees of CBS.

While these events were taking place, the Secret Service agents arrived at the Centreville police department with Michael Brown. Based upon what Delores Brown had previously told them, the agents decided that they should call plaintiff in for questioning. Pursuant to the agents' request, the Centreville police dispatcher telephoned plaintiff at the Centreville street department, where she was employed as an administrative secretary to the superintendent of streets, and requested that she come over to police headquarters. Plaintiff was not informed as to why she was being summoned, but appeared, as requested, shortly thereafter.

Once plaintiff arrived at police headquarters, the Secret Service agents showed her a copy of the letter and questioned her about it. Plaintiff testified at trial that she thought that the handwriting in the letter resembled her own and that one of the agents told her that she had been accused by Delores Brown of being its author. Not surprisingly, plaintiff felt scared and nervous, but she protested her innocence to the agents. Plaintiff was aware that Delores Brown, who was familiar with her handwriting, had been fighting with her brother, Michael, and wanted him out of the house. Plaintiff therefore suggested to the agents that Delores had a reason for writing the letter and that if she did not actually write it, she knew about it. Based upon these statements by plaintiff, Delores was also brought to the police station for questioning.

Plaintiff, Delores Brown, and Michael Brown were all held at police headquarters for several hours. While there, they were interrogated, fingerprinted, photographed, and asked to rewrite the letter several times so that their handwriting could be compared with that used in the letter. When this process was completed, the three were released and told that they would be contacted again once the Secret Service had completed the fingerprint and handwriting analyses.

In the meantime, the news crew from CBS had arrived on the scene and was at city hall as the Browns and plaintiff left police headquarters. Robin Smith, the reporter, and Gerry Dawes, the cameraman, made their way through the small crowd which had congregated there, and Smith spoke with both of the Browns for a total of between 15 and 30 minutes. After gathering background information, she interviewed them "on camera" regarding the letter and the Secret Service investigation.

Smith next spoke with plaintiff. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to her, as we must, it appears that plaintiff was reluctant to talk with Smith about the investigation. She testified that she actually wanted to leave the city hall through a rear door, but was prevented from doing so by a police official. She apparently consented to an interview only after Smith persisted in her questioning and suggested to plaintiff that because her name would be mentioned and the interviews with the Browns would be broadcast in any event, it might be in plaintiff's best interest to appear and present her side of the story.

Smith also attempted to interview the two Secret Service agents who were conducting the investigation. They refused comment and would only give Smith the name and telephone number of their supervisor in St. Louis. Later in the day, Smith telephoned that individual. He confirmed the investigation and the existence of the letter and apprised Smith as to the possible criminal penalties involved. He also told Smith that the Secret Service was "not sure" whether any arrests or charges would ultimately be brought, but that none would be brought that day.

No further investigation was attempted by Smith or anyone else at CBS. Smith and her cameraman remained in Centreville for only about two hours. Of that time, no more than approximately one hour and 17 minutes was spent on actual investigation by the CBS news crew. The rest of the time was spent by Smith drafting the script for the news story on the Secret Service investigation, which she expected to be broadcast on KMOX-TV later that day.

Smith admitted that she did not call the Centreville police department to check on the background of Delores and Michael Brown, nor did she ask anyone if the Browns could be trusted. While Michael Brown told her that he thought the handwriting in the letter resembled that of plaintiff, Smith never asked how he had become familiar with plaintiff's handwriting. While Smith was told that family problems existed between Michael and plaintiff's family, she stated that it did not occur to her that Michael might have some reason not to be accurate or truthful. Similarly, there is no question that Smith had been told that Delores Brown had once held the job in which plaintiff worked at the time of the Secret Service investigation, but did not think that Brown's loss of that job might be a motive for Brown's accusations against plaintiff. While plaintiff steadfastly denied any involvement in writing the letter, this apparently meant little to Smith, who testified that she had no opinion one way or another as to whether the accusations against plaintiff made by the Browns were true.

Based upon the limited information obtained by Smith and the taped interviews she had obtained, the CBS editors at KMOX-TV decided to broadcast stories on the Secret Service's investigation during the station's 5, 6, and 10 p.m. newscasts that day. Tapes of those broadcasts were played to the jury and admitted into evidence. The 5 p.m. broadcast, which is not directly involved in this appeal, presented an abbreviated version of the story in which plaintiff was not directly implicated. The story began when a picture of the presidential seal and the words "Death Threat" were shown behind the anchorman on the screen. The anchorman then stated:

"The U.S. Secret Service is trying to find out who sent President Reagan a threatening letter. The investigation is currently taking place in Centreville, Illinois. Secret Service agents have talked to three residents there: Michael Brown, his name was signed to the letter; Michael's sister, Delores; and their neighbor, Carolyn Owens."

Delores Brown was then shown stating:

"Someone wrote a letter, and they said they had been out of work for six months, and Reagan was responsible, and they felt like they should kill him if he didn't straighten up, you know. And so we went through the handwriting analysis."

Michael Brown, in turn, was shown on the screen and heard to say:

"Someone had been out of a job for six months, but they used my name, and they wanted to kill him so he wouldn't hurt anybody else, and stuff like that."

The audience then saw plaintiff, who stated:

"The man just told us that there was [ sic ] no arrests, nothing, you know. It just had been sent to the White House, ...

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