Reporters who rely upon public officials are protected by fair report privilege, appellate court rules

By Sarah Zavala | May 10, 2012


Reports given by public officials fall under the Illinois fair report privilege, the Fifth District Appellate Court ruled on Tuesday.

Justices affirmed Madison County Associate Judge Thomas Chapman who dismissed a pro se defamation case against the Alton Telegraph and its reporter Sanford Schmidt.

Justice Thomas Welch delivered the opinion of the court and Justices Richard Goldenhersh and Bruce Stewart concurred.

At issue was whether the defendants were protected under the Illinois fair report privilege.

The case arose from an article published on April 8, 2011, which contained information about the prosecution and sentencing of Anthony Hill and Demetrius Hill in a murder case.

The article, written Schmidt, stated that Anthony Hill cooperated with authorities and agreed to testify against his "brother," Demetrius Hill, who was the shooter in the case.

Madison County's assistant State's Attorney Ben Beyers, who is now an associate judge, was identified in the article as being the source of information.

Anthony Hill's mother contacted the newspaper to state that Anthony and Demetrius were cousins, not brothers.

The paper published a correction 20 days later, stating that Anthony Hill, (who was initially charged with first degree murder but then pleaded guilty to solicitation of murder) cooperated with the authorities, but did not agree to testify against his cousin Demetrius Hill. The Telegraph also stated that it regretted the errors.

According to the opinion, Hill argued that the article contained defamatory statements that were unfounded, not matters of public concern, and not statements made during judicial proceedings.

He argued that the statements published in the Telegraph resulted in him being immediately discharged from his job, labeled a jailhouse snitch, his life being threatened, and it detrimentally affected his relationship with his family.

The Telegraph and Schmidt argued that Hill's claims were barred under the First Amendment and Illinois common law because government officials made the statements which were relied upon in their reporting.

Welch stated that the fair report privilege protects news outlets from written and verbal statements made by government agencies and officials, therefore the privilege applied to statements obtained from an assistant State's Attorney.

Welch said the court believes that Telegraph was not attempting to correct the accuracy of the information but "instead, the language of the corrected article merely revealed that the defendants received a different version of the circumstances surrounding Hill's prosecution of Johnson's murder."

"The proper focus under the fair –report privilege law is whether the reporter accurately reported what the officials said, not whether someone disagreed with the reported summary," Welch said.

"We find that the original article contained a sufficiently fair and accurate summary of the official statements made by Beyers in his capacity as the assistant State's Attorney," Welch said.

Welch also found that the article did not constitute defamation per se or per quod.

He said the statements in the original article did not fall under one of the five categories of statements that the state recognizes as defamation per se.

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