Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County. No. 11-AR-288 Honorable Thomas W. Chapman, Judge, presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Welch
The text of this decision may be changed or corrected prior to the filing of a Petition for Rehearing or the disposition of the same.
JUSTICE WELCH delivered the opinion of the court. Justices Goldenhersh and Stewart concurred in the judgment.
¶ 1 The plaintiff, Anthony Hill, appeals the order of the circuit court of Madison County dismissing his pro se defamation complaint filed against the defendants, Sanford Schmidt and Alton Telegraph. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the decision of the circuit court.
¶ 2 On April 27, 2011, Hill filed a pro se complaint against the defendants, Sanford Schmidt (the Alton Telegraph's courthouse reporter) and Alton Telegraph (the daily newspaper of Alton, Illinois), alleging defamation and reckless endangerment arising from a news report on the prosecution and sentencing of Hill in a murder case. Specifically, Hill alleged that an article published by the Alton Telegraph (the article was titled "Alton man gets 15 years in fatal shooting" and was published April 8, 2011) contained statements unfounded "in fact and substance" and resulted in Hill being labeled a jailhouse snitch. Hill further alleged Schmidt and Alton Telegraph had malicious intent in publishing the article, which was based on "assumptions and not facts," and the publication recklessly endangered his life.
¶ 3 The article, which was written by Schmidt, reported that Hill pleaded guilty to solicitation of murder after initially being charged with the first-degree murder of Willie Johnson. According to the article, Hill cooperated with authorities following his arrest. The article further stated that Hill agreed to testify against his brother, Demetrius Hill, who was the shooter in the case. Demetrius ultimately pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The article identified Ben Beyers, an assistant State's Attorney for Madison County, as saying that Hill received a deal because he cooperated with authorities and had agreed to testify against the shooter. Beyers was quoted as saying that conflicting evidence existed as to whether Johnson had a gun and that a trial on a first-degree murder charge could have resulted in acquittal.
¶ 4 On April 28, 2011, Alton Telegraph published a correction to the original story, which stated that Hill cooperated with authorities but did not agree to testify against a co-defendant, his cousin Demetrius Hill. The article clarified that the new information was provided to the newspaper by Hill's mother and was "contrary to facts reported in a recent account of Hill's guilty plea." The article concluded by stating that the "Telegraph regret[ed] the errors."
¶ 5 On June 7, 2011, the defendants filed an answer denying the allegations contained in Hill's pro se complaint. According to the answer, the published statements were a substantially accurate account of reports given by a public official (Ben Beyers) in his official capacity (as assistant State's Attorney) and were therefore immune from liability under the Illinois fair-report privilege. Also on June 7, 2011, the defendants filed a combined motion to dismiss and motion for summary judgment pursuant to section 2-619.1 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-619.1 (West 2010)). In the combined motions, the defendants argued that Hill's claims were barred under the first amendment and Illinois common law because a privilege existed for those who report on the contents of government records and proceedings, which included statements made by government officials in the course of their official duties. Specifically, the defendants noted that Schmidt relied on official statements made to him by Ben Beyers, an assistant State's Attorney, during an April 7, 2011, interview concerning Hill's prosecution. He also relied on official court proceedings concerning the prosecution. Additionally, the defendants argued that Hill's claim of reckless endangerment did not state a civil cause of action recognized under Illinois law. Further, the defendants argued Hill's defamation claim should fail because it was not pled with sufficient particularity to state a defamation claim. Specifically, the defendants noted that the pro se complaint did not identify with sufficient clarity and particularity the alleged defamatory statements, or even the article in which the defamatory statements were published. Last, the defendants argued they were entitled to a judgment as a matter of law because the pleadings and affidavits on file revealed that no genuine issue of material fact existed.
¶ 6 On July 6, 2011, Hill filed a pro se response to the defendants' combined motion to dismiss and for summary judgment, arguing the defendants failed to provide (1) any evidence that the statements contained in the article were accurate and (2) an affidavit from Beyers verifying that the statements contained in the article were obtained during an interview with him. According to Hill, the defendants were not protected under the Illinois fair-report privilege because the defamatory statements were (1) unfounded, (2) not matters of public concern, and (3) not statements made during judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings.
¶ 7 On July 18, 2011, the trial court dismissed Hill's pro se complaint with prejudice. First, the court determined that the statements in the article did not fall within one of the five categories of statements established under Illinois law as defamation per se. With regard to Hill's claim that the article resulted in him being labeled a jailhouse snitch, the court noted that defamation law did not protect against injury to antisocial reputation. The court then concluded that a statement identifying a person as a government informant cannot form the basis for a defamation suit.
¶ 8 The trial court further concluded that the reporter's privilege applied to Hill's claims.
The court noted the relevant question to ask when determining whether the reporter's privilege applied was "whether the reporter reported what the official said." The court then concluded that the original article contained a fair and accurate summary of the official statements made by assistant State's Attorney Beyers. The court explained that public statements made by Beyers in his role as assistant State's Attorney were protected by the fair-report privilege because the State's Attorney's office was responsible for reviewing criminal charges. The court determined that Beyers's ...