We hope Illinois judges don't get the wrong impression from last week's $7 million libel judgment in favor of Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Bob Thomas, who sued a suburban Chicago newspaper that said he once traded his vote on the bench for a local political favor.
Judges aren't above reproach. They aren't immune from criticism. And this jury's decision won't change the way journalists here and elsewhere cover our courts.
Since the verdict came down, there's been a good deal of media chatter suggesting the opposite. Many have bemoaned the verdict's "chilling effect," suggesting reporters will go soft on judges for fear they'll get dragged into court.
To the contrary-- here at The Record, we feel even more emboldened in our mission than we did previously. That's because the result of Thomas' matter represents a justified media blowback that, frankly, was a long time coming. In the long run, it will benefit journalists more than it ever restrains them.
In this case, the allegations were serious. Kane County Chronicle columnist Bill Page had accused Justice Thomas of not just betraying the public trust but also committing a felony. He wouldn't substantiate the accusation, citing anonymous sources, and refused to retract it when offered the chance.
And then there was the threatening email message Page sent to Thomas, promising a "nightmare of bad publicity" if he didn't recuse himself from a case. A nightmare? From whom?
Free speech is protected in this country because it's our only road toward truth. Journalists get the benefit of the doubt in reporting on public officials like Thomas for this precise reason. We can be wrong without consequence. But we cannot be wrong on purpose.
It's the latter that explains why journalism as a profession has taken such a reputational beating over the years. Everyone makes mistakes, but abusing one's position to expressly wage a vendetta does a disservice to media everywhere.
The award in Thomas' case is ridiculous and should be lowered significantly, but the point is one worth keeping. The First Amendment gives us the right to seek truth, not openly disregard it.
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