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03/15/89 James R. Sweeney, v. Sengstacke Enterprises

March 15, 1989

JAMES R. SWEENEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT

v.

SENGSTACKE ENTERPRISES, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Before a court may Judge statements to be defamatory as a matter of law, they must be considered in light of the innocent construction rule. (Owen v. Carr (1986), 113 Ill. 2d 273, 497 N.E.2d 1145.) Under the innocent construction rule, words allegedly libelous which are capable of being read innocently must be so read and declared non-actionable as a matter of law. (Chapski v. Copley Press (1982), 92 Ill. 2d 344, 442 N.E.2d 195; John v. Tribune Co. (1962), 24 Ill. 2d 437, 181 N.E.2d 105.) The meaning of a statement must be gathered not only from the words singled out as libelous but also from the context in which they are used. (Chapski v. Copley Press, 92 Ill. 2d 344, 442 N.E.2d 195.) Whether the innocent construction rule requires dismissal is initially a question of law. Chapski v. Copley Press, 92 Ill. 2d 344, 442 N.E.2d 195; Cartwright v. Garrison, 113 Ill. App. 3d 536, 447 N.E.2d 446.

APPELLATE COURT OF ILLINOIS, FIRST DISTRICT, THIRD DIVISION

536 N.E.2d 823, 180 Ill. App. 3d 1044, 129 Ill. Dec. 773 1989.IL.325

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Odas Nicholson, Judge, presiding.

APPELLATE Judges:

JUSTICE McNAMARA delivered the opinion of the court. FREEMAN, P.J., and WHITE, J., concur.

DECISION OF THE COURT DELIVERED BY THE HONORABLE JUDGE MCNAMARA

Plaintiff, James R. Sweeney, sued defendants Sengstacke Enterprises, Inc., d/b/a Chicago Defender, and Chinta Strausberg, among others, for defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court dismissed all three counts as to these defendants pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1987, ch. 110, par. 2-615). Plaintiff appeals only from the dismissal of the defamation count. Defendants Curtis Jones and his son Rodney Jones are not parties to this appeal.

On January 21, 1987, the Chicago Defender published an article which read, in pertinent part:

"OPS probes student charge policeman threatened mayor by Chinta Strausberg

The Office of Professional Standards is investigating charges with a white officer, who arrested the 16-year-old son of a Black City Hall policeman, allegedly [threatened] the life of Mayor Harold Washington.

In an interview with the Chicago Defender, City Hall officer Curtis Jones, 48, who ironically is the cousin of the slain Emmett Till, then 14, who was killed August 22, 1955 in Money, Miss., by whites, has filed a formal complaint against a white colleague.

'[My son] was horsing around outside of the restaurant in the park area,' Jones said. 'Sweeney told them he was under arrest and handcuffed my son. He put both of them in the car and while enroute to the 25th District, Area 5, the white officers made racial statements using (former mayoral candidate Bernard) Epton jokes.

'They told Black and white jokes,' continued Jones. 'One of them made a statement saying "We forgave Jane Byrne" then asked my son who was he for. When my son said Washington, Sweeney and his partner said: "If he (Washington) gets in, we're going to kill him. I got a friend with a helicopter, and we got a rifle with a scope and we are going to pick him off. We got grenades, too."'

An officer for 21 years, Jones said 'I try to keep that hostility out of my life.' Jones said he was sleeping in the bed next to Till when the white men 'dragged him out of the house that Saturday night. I ...


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