Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 05 C 3283-Richard Mills, Judge.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bauer, Circuit Judge.
Before BAUER, RIPPLE and WOOD,Circuit Judges.
In late 2001, Renatta Frazier, an African-American police officer with the Springfield Police Department, became the subject of an internal affairs investigation when she was accused of failing to prevent a rape while on duty. The incident occurred on October 31, 2001, when Frazier allegedly failed to respond to a dispatch call. She left the Department in November 2001 on a medical leave and apparently never returned due to the allegations that surrounded her conduct that day. That same year, she approached the Black Guardians, a group that advocates for the interests of American-American police officers, who directed her to Carl Madison, an African-American and president of the local National Association for the Ad-vancement of Colored People ("NAACP") chapter in Springfield, Illinois (the "City"), for assistance in addressing the allegations. Madison recommended legal counsel to Frazier and discussed the investigation of Frazier's job performance with City representatives. After frequent discussions, Frazier and Madison disagreed as to the appropriate course of action regarding the dispute and parted ways. Frazier was eventually cleared of the allegations surrounding the dispatch call and subsequently joined a lawsuit against the City that claimed racial discrimination in its hiring practices. See Frazier et al. v. Harris, 266 F.Supp.2d 853 (C.D.Ill. 2003). The parties reached a financial settlement in 2004.
On March 13, 2002, an article was published in a City newspaper, the State Journal Register, stating that Madison and the NAACP "dropped Frazier's case" due to her lack of cooperation. On March 18, 2002, the Black Guardians sent Madison and the NAACP a letter, indicating that they no longer needed the NAACP's assistance in the discrimination cases (including Frazier's) pending against the City.
In 2003, Frazier began to write about her experiences with the Department. These writings evolved into a book titled The Enemy in Blue: The Renatta Frazier Story (the "Book"), which was co-authored by Frazier's son, Kourtney Mitchell, and published in 2005 by Renatta's Heart, Inc., an Illinois corporation. The prologue describes the story as "one woman's fight against the enemy of racial and gender discrimination in the system of a police department." The beginning chapters of the Book describe Frazier's background, including her childhood, family, and life as a probationary officer with the Department.
Relevant to this appeal, Chapter Seven, titled "Almost Buried Alive," relates the events surrounding October 31, 2001, Frazier's perplexity at the accusations that swirled around her conduct on that day, and the aftermath, including her medical and financial difficulties. The end of the chapter, also known as the "fantasy sequence," begins with the words "[d]uring this time of turmoil in my life, one day in my imagination I fantasized the following scenario" and describes Frazier's imaginary interaction with various people. She imagined that she was lying in the streets of Springfield, bleeding:
As I looked up, I thought I saw a lot of people standing in the distance. I wasn't sure; I had been beaten so badly, I felt dizzy and my vision was blurred. I began to yell as loudly as I could: "HELP! HELP!" I thought maybe they couldn't hear me. Perhaps the pain had limited my ability to yell. Even so, I began to drag my body with all the strength that remained. My faint yell for help seemed to go undetected. I decided to approach the man closest to me. He was standing with his back to me, and he appeared to have his arms folded across his chest. "Mister," I said, "can you help me please, I've been hurt and they left me for dead." As the man turned around to reveal his face, I was astonished and confused to see that he was black. He didn't say anything. He just shook his head in a right-to-left motion. He turned his head and began to walk away. I approached other people one by one- prominent people, leaders in the community, political figures, pastors, preachers, business owners. All black, and all too selfish, too afraid, and too complacent to "practice what they preach." God forbid that they risk their comfortable homes to help me. So once again I was left for dead.
[I]n my mind, this imaginary experience was equiva-lent to a physical attack, a brutal beating. As I shared this imaginary account with my husband he made a profound statement: "That this was a modern day lynching."
Chapter Eight, entitled "Integrity Is: Who You Are When No One's Looking," describes how Frazier contacted Madison, the NAACP, and the Black Guardians, in late 2001, for insight on how to defend herself against the City's accusations:
In the weeks that followed, I began to feel that the president of the local NAACP branch was not working in my best interest. I spoke to him daily over the phone, and his conversation seemed more centered around my letting this matter go than fighting for the truth. "Let's forget it, and sweep it under the rug."
I repeated, "Man, whose side are you on, mine or theirs?" "I'm trying to get you back to work and put this behind you," he said. I replied, "I know damn well they are all wrong and they are trying to destroy my life." He said, "Renatta, they're willing to make this go away, but I need your cooperation." I replied, "Oh, yeah? Tell them it's not going away and neither am I. As a matter of fact, tell them that when they start talking dollars, then we can talk."
Later in Chapter Eight, Frazier writes that she met with a NAACP lawyer to discuss a possible lawsuit against the City. After the meeting Frazier decided not to hire the lawyer:
It was then that I made my decision to sever my ties with the local NAACP branch. I spoke with Carl Madison on the phone and said, to him, "I do not believe you are acting in my best interest." "I am notifying you at this time that I will no longer consult with you concerning my case." Later, I read and heard that Mr. Madison had decided to drop me. I couldn't believe what I was reading and hearing. The Guardians were outraged. We knew as well as he did that it didn't happen like that at all. The severing of the ties had been done long before he made this statement. Maybe he planned to run for some political office or was trying to obtain a politically connected employment opportunity. Whatever the reason, my respect for him diminished to nothing.
Following this alleged phone call to Madison, Frazier "had many other brushes or encounters with him, mostly from a distance. However close or far away the encounters may have been, I couldn't bring myself to speak to him or even recognize his presence. 'Real men don't lie.' I thought, 'real men don't sell out.' "
In 2005, Madison, now a citizen of Ohio, filed this diversity action against Frazier, Mitchell and Renatta's Heart, Inc. (collectively the "Defendants"), complaining that the fantasy section and above-mentioned statements in Chapter Eight of the Book amounted to libel and portrayed him in a false light. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint (or alternatively, for summary judgment). After reviewing the facts on the record (such as the respective parties' affidavits and Frazier's deposition testimony), the district court granted summary judgment for the Defendants, finding that (1) the fantasy section was fictional and capable of innocent construction, (2) the descriptions of the events in Chapter Eight were judgmental opinions, and (3) the phrase "real men don't ...