Ill. appeals judge rules against newspaper in libel suit stemming from use of high school yearbook photo

An Illinois appeals court recently granted a new trial to a plaintiff whose defamation lawsuit against a newspaper was thrown out by a lower court.

The Illinois Appellate Court for the First District ruled on Jan. 24 that a Cook County circuit judge misapplied standards for libel in Edwards v. Paddock Publications.

The case originated in 1991 when Chicago’s Daily Herald ran a story about a police drug bust in the city’s suburbs. The article referred to one of the arrested individuals, Christopher A. Edwards, and displayed a high school yearbook photograph with a caption that called Edwards “a former Hoffman Estates high school football star.” The yearbook photo, however, depicted a different Chris Edwards than the one who had been arrested; the pictured Edwards had been a football star in high school but was not involved in the drug bust.

The reporters said they used the incorrect photo of Edwards after seeing it in a police file relating to the drug bust, but they had never verified its authenticity. The paper later printed a front-page retraction.

The appeals court took issue with several decisions by the circuit court.

First, it ruled the lower court had applied the wrong standard for defamation in requiring the plaintiffs to present evidence of “journalistic malpractice” — a departure from prevailing newspaper standards or customs — rather than an ordinary negligence standard.

Secondly, the appeals court ruled the trial court erred when it allowed the newspaper to present a fair report privilege to the jury. Under such a privilege, the press can legally reprint defamatory information that appears in a public record or document, as long as the journalist summarizes the defamatory information fairly and accurately.

The Daily Herald argued the wrong photo appeared on the police file about the Christopher Edwards who was to be arrested. The court ruled, however, that since the Daily Herald‘s summary of the information on the police file made several inferences about Edwards’ arrest, it was not an accurate summary and therefore was not entitled to the privilege.

Finally, the appeals court rejected the instruction given to the jury that “reckless disregard” for the truth required more than a failure to investigate. “When the defendant is the original source of the defamatory information and relies merely upon inferences drawn from certain events, reckless disregard may be shown where the defendant failed to make inquiry to ascertain whether the inferences drawn were correct,” the court wrote.