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Defamation case dismissed when subject was not named



By Laura Mallory

Allegations of sexual assault led to a published headline and accompanying news article, which a college professor alleges defamed him. Due to the general description of the alleged wrongdoer, an Illinois appellate court affirmed the dismissal of the professor’s defamation complaint.  

The professor taught at a prominent university in Illinois and was accused by one of his freshman students of sexual assault and harassment. The student claimed she attended an event with the professor and then dinner afterwards. Despite the student being under the age of 21, the professor allegedly ordered wine for both of them. The student also alleged the professor then took her to multiple bars and the professor’s apartment, where he continued to insist she drink alcohol.  

The student alleged the professor took sexual advantage of her in her intoxicated state. The next day, she reported the incident to another professor. The student filed a lawsuit against the college, asserting the school committed various discriminatory and retaliatory acts.

A report of rape

A newspaper published a story about the lawsuit against the school, with the following headline: “Student allegedly raped by professor suing [university].” While neither the student nor the professor was identified by name in the article, the article summarized the student’s allegations. The newspaper article was later published on two news media’s webpages.

The professor filed a complaint against the newspaper and the two other news outlets, alleging defamation resulting from the headline which used the word “rape.” The professor  argued the student never alleged she had been raped and the use of that word in the headline defamed the professor.  All three news media moved to dismiss, and all three motions were granted. The professor appealed.

The lower court held that the alleged defamatory statement contained in the headline was susceptible to an innocent construction, as a reasonable person could interpret the headline to refer to someone other than the professor. The court also found that the headline was a fair summary of the student’s complaint.

In order for a claimant be to successful on a defamation claim, he must present facts showing that the media made a false statement about the claimant, the statement was not privileged, was made to a third party, and the statement caused damage.

The innocent construction rule

The appellate court agreed with the lower court that the headline was capable of innocent construction, meaning it could reasonably be interpreted that it referred to someone other than the plaintiff. As a general rule, when applying the innocent construction rule, a newspaper headline and the accompanying article must be read together.

The appellate court carefully examined the article, which only referenced a tenured professor who taught a philosophy class. The professor’s name was never used or any other identifying information. In order to specifically identify the professor, a reader of the articles would have to examine the student’s complaint. However, the complaint was not referenced in or attached to the article.

Therefore, the appellate court agreed with the lower court that it is reasonable for a third person to believe the articles pertained to someone other than the professor. It is important to note that most states do not follow the innocent consideration rule that applies in Illinois.




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