In September 2017, the village council of Downers Grove removed a library trustee from the library board of trustees because of his comments in a report written and published by the League of Women Voters. In the report, the League alleged that the trustee made bigoted comments about race and sexual orientation during a August 23rd library board meeting in the discussion about a proposal for library staff to receive training about equity, diversity, and inclusion.
After his removal, the former library trustee sued the Village, the League, and individual members of the League, individual Village Council members, and the Mayor. He raised several legal issues, including defamation, free speech claims, limitations on the home-rule authority of municipalities, and due process rights. The Circuit Court dismissed the complaint, and he appealed. In Jaros v. Village of Downers Grove, 2017 IL App (2d) 170758, the Second District ruled in favor of the defendants and affirmed the dismissal.
Defamation
The appellate court first determined that the reported statements attributed to the library trustee were not defamatory per se. Also, since he was a public official when the statements were made, he failed to demonstrate that defendants acted with actual malice, that is, knowledge that the statement was false or made with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity, when the League published his reported remarks.
The court distinguished between statements accusing someone of lacking professional integrity or ability in their trade, versus statements relating to someone’s personal integrity and character. The court noted that an attack on personal integrity, no matter how it might diminish reputation and damage future business or employment prospects, is not necessarily an attack on professional integrity. The court found that the reported statements related to the former trustee’s personal character, and did not suggest that he lacked professional ability or integrity as an attorney. At worst, the court found that the reported statements portrayed him as “somehow a racist,” which “in and of itself is not defamation.” Importantly, a statement is not defamatory simply because it paints someone as a bad character when there is no reason to believe that the individual cannot separate his personal views from his professional performance. Although the court acknowledged that the reported statements migth discourage people from retaining his services as an attorney, that possibility did not make the reported statements defamatory per se. Since the reported statements were not defamatory per se, the court also concluded that defendants were not liable for publishing the reported statement, and later republishing the reported statement.
Free Speech
The former trustee also argued his removal from the board was improper because his reported remarks were entitled to free speech protection under the Illinois Constitution. The court  disagreed, indicating that he expressed his views as a public board employee, rather than as a private citizen. The court discussed the difference between the free speech rights afforded to elected officials versus appointed officials. Specifically, elected officials are charged with representing their own wishes and that of their constituency. In contrast, appointed officials serve on behalf of and at the will of an appointing body, and appointees are expected to represent and reflect the views of the appointing body. In this case, the court concluded that the former trustee had no free-speech right against removal from the board based on his reported remarks at the August 23 meeting.
Due Process and Home Rule Power Claims
Finally, the former trustee argued that his removal from the board violated his due process rights and that the section of the Village code that authorized the board to remove Jaros from his library trustee position exceeded the Village’s home-rule powers. The court rejected that argument, finding that the Village decision to remove the trustee was a proper exercise of the Village’s home-rule power.
Moreover, the court noted that the former trustee failed to allege a due process claim independent of his claim relating to home-rule authority. The only suggested due process claim was that plaintiff’s removal from office would cause “irreparable injury to his state-constitutionally protected liberty interest” in his position as library trustee. However, the court found that the former trustee failed to allege how the removal procedure itself was lacking in due process. At best, he implied that the Village’s lack of home-rule authority itself constitutes a due process violation. However, since the court already determined the Village did not exceed their home-rule power by removing him, there was no due process violation.
Post Authored by Eugene Bolotnikov, Ancel Glink