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Chicago City Day School v. Wade

June 23, 1998


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Tully

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County.

Honorable Philip L. Bronstein, Judge Presiding.

Plaintiff, Chicago City Day School (hereinafter School), brought suit against defendants, Roma Wade (a/k/a Roma Wehde), WLS, Inc., and Capital Cities/ABC, Inc., seeking to redress the harm to plaintiff caused by false and defamatory statements during a March 8, 1996 radio broadcast on WLS talk radio. Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging that Roma Wade's (hereinafter Roma) statements were defamatory per se. Defendants moved to dismiss pursuant to section 2-615 (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 1996)), which the circuit court granted on the grounds that the statements came under "the innocent construction rule." Plaintiff now appeals this judgment pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 303 (155 Ill. 2d R. 303).

For the reasons which follow, we affirm.

The pertinent facts are as follows. The School had purchased a coach house in 1984, which was located adjacent to the School's existing building. The coach house is a wooden structure, and as such, the city of Chicago ordinances prohibits using it as a classroom or as an area for children's events. On February 16, 1995, the Chicago Fire Department inspected the coach house upon the School's request, and ordered the School to either repair or demolish it. Upon reinspection, the Chicago Fire Department advised the School to demolish the coach house. The School had decided not to repair the coach house, because the cost would exceed $300,000, which was not economically justifiable. The Board believed it would be a violation of its fiduciary duties to spend the School's privately obtained funds for the repairs of a deteriorating coachhouse which could not even be used as classrooms for the children. Thereafter, the School applied for a permit to demolish the coach house, which the city of Chicago denied. This matter was litigated all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, which ultimately granted the School's right to a demolition permit on March 6, 1996. The following day, despite the supreme court's order, the city sent police to attempt to stop the demolition, only to allow the School to proceed after an emergency trial court hearing.

On March 8, 1997, on her WLS morning radio talk show, Roma and her co-host were discussing the two Chicago newspapers' front-page coverage of the School's demolition of its 101-year-old coach house the previous day. Roma first set forth the following facts the newspapers had reported: (1) a city official (Luis Martinez) had authorized the issuance of the demolition permit; (2) the city was trying to save the coach house; (3) the mayor had instructed that the coach house not be demolished; and (4) the mayor was furious over the demolition. The broadcast consisted of a heated debate among Roma, her co-host, and callers to the show about whether the historic coach house should have been protected rather than destroyed. Roma had repeatedly opined that the coach house was a beautiful, landmark building on a historic street, and was extremely upset that the School had demolished it. Consequently, she made the following remarks over the air right after her co-host stated that it may have been Luis Martinez who authorized the permit:

"Well, the first thing, if I were going to investigate this case - the first thing I would do is go check out all kinds of things about this Luis or anybody else who seems to have anything to do with this, because there were shenanigans. This is a very, very, very wealthy school. The kids who go to this school get dropped off in Jaguars and get dropped off in Mercedeses *** and man, I am telling you, somebody in high places with lots of money, something is going on here, and the Mayor is furious over this, apparently."

"The point is that a building that was a historic landmark, an [sic] historic landmark has been demolished, and it happened because big money went somewhere. If I were the Mayor, I would be investigating bank accounts, I would be investigating sudden big purchases of anything. I would be investigating what kind of cars people are driving. I would be checking it out because something happened here, and they got a stamp of approval when the department had been told not to allow this."

"[I]f it were a school for poor low lifes, this would never have happened because no one would have razed a classic historic building for them. . . They only did that because there is money at work, because there's a string of Jaguars. . . Mercedes Benzes, every kind of fancy car you can imagine. . . that's double parked all the way down that street."

"The issue is a landmark torn down against the Mayor's orders without anybody's permission except some high-ranking official, which I would immediately investigate, and investigate his finances, just on the basis of what we see."

In addition to these comments, Roma also expressed her concern that "they" were just lying about the physical condition of the coach house.

Co-host: "These buildings are eventually going to come down. And if the thing is falling apart anyway, why not bulldoze it, put up a nice fresh one."

Roma: "It wasn't falling apart. They are just flat lying about it. They're just flat lying. There were - there were shenanigans going on over there. And whomever is responsible for this should be fired, period."

Soon after Roma's broadcast, the School filed a complaint stating that these comments, insinuating that the School had lied and bribed the city to obtain the permit, were defamatory per se. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the complaint pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 1996)). Defendants claimed that Roma's statements were not defamatory per se under the innocent construction rule, and that they were protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (U.S. Const., amend. I). The trial court held that Roma's statements did accuse the School of bribery, but that it was possible to innocently construe the accusation as being directed at others besides the School. Furthermore, the alleged accusation of lying was determined by the court to be rhetorical hyperbole, not an assertion of fact. In the end, the trial court entered an order granting the motion to dismiss, which plaintiff now appeals.

On appeal, plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in holding that: (1) the allegations of bribery could be reasonably and innocently construed as accusing someone other than plaintiff; and (2) the allegations of lying could be innocently construed as referring to someone other than plaintiff or innocently construed as rhetorical hyperbole. Defendants respond that Roma's statements do not fall within any of the defamatory per se categories of statements, and that the statements can be ...

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