A defamation claim should be dismissed under the “substantial truth” defense where the “gist” or “sting” of the allegedly defamatory material is true.” Harrison v. Chicago Sun-Times, Inc., 341 Ill.App.3d 555, 563 (1st Dist. 2003) (reporter defendant’s use of the word “kidnapped” conveyed the gist or sting that would have been conveyed by the correct phrase “wrongful removal under federal and international child abduction law”). “Substantial truth” makes an allegedly defamatory statement non-actionable even when the statement is an inaccurate characterization of criminal behavior. That is so even when a statement is “not technically accurate in every detail.” Accord, Bertha v. Daily Herald Newspaper, 2022 IL App (2d) 210695, ¶ 20. See also Lemons v. Chronicle Pub. Co., 253 Ill.App.3d 888 (4th Dist. 1993) (reporter’s words were substantially true because the reporter’s and plaintiff’s characterizations of the conduct were similar).
The substantial truth of a statement is normally a jury question, but where no reasonable jury could find that substantial truth had not been established, the question is one of law. Harrison, 341 Ill. App. 3d at 563.t Dist. 2003)
Harrison was a notable case in Illinois that involved a claim of defamation against a prominent newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times. The case was decided by the Illinois Appellate Court in 2003 and had significant implications for media law in the state including reiterating the substantial truth defense.
The plaintiff in the case was Michael Harrison, a former employee of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) who had been fired from his job. The Sun-Times published a series of articles about Harrison’s termination, which included allegations of misconduct and corruption. Harrison sued the newspaper for defamation, arguing that the articles had damaged his reputation and caused him to suffer financial harm.
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Sun-Times, finding that the newspaper’s statements about Harrison were either true or protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press. Harrison appealed the decision to the Illinois Appellate Court, which affirmed the trial court’s ruling.
The Sun-Times argued that its articles about the plaintiff’s termination from the CTA were substantially true. The newspaper had conducted an extensive investigation into the circumstances of the termination, and had based its reporting on official documents and interviews with CTA officials. The articles accurately reported the substance of those documents and interviews, the newspaper argued, and any minor inaccuracies or omissions were not material to the overall story.
The Illinois Appellate Court agreed with the Sun-Times, finding that the articles were substantially true and therefore not defamatory. The court noted that the newspaper’s reporting was based on official documents and interviews with CTA officials, and that the articles accurately conveyed the substance of those sources. The court also found that the plaintiff had not shown that any inaccuracies or omissions in the reporting were material to the overall story or had altered its meaning.
The defense of substantial truth can be a powerful tool for defendants in defamation cases, particularly in cases involving public figures or matters of public interest. By demonstrating that a statement is substantially true, defendants can often avoid liability for allegedly defamatory statements even if they contain some minor inaccuracies or omissions.
Another one of the key issues in the case was whether the Sun-Times had acted with actual malice in publishing the allegedly defamatory statements about Harrison. Under U.S. defamation law, public figures like Harrison must prove that the defendant acted with actual malice – that is, with knowledge that the statements were false or with reckless disregard for their truth or falsity – in order to succeed in a defamation claim.
The Appellate Court in Harrison v. Chicago Sun-Times, Inc. found that there was no evidence that the newspaper had acted with actual malice. The court noted that the Sun-Times had conducted an extensive investigation into Harrison’s termination and had based its reporting on official documents and interviews with CTA officials. The court also found that the Sun-Times had accurately reported the content of those documents and interviews, and had not fabricated or distorted any facts.
The court’s decision in Harrison v. Chicago Sun-Times, Inc. reaffirmed the importance of the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of the press, particularly in cases involving public figures. It also highlighted the high standard of proof that public figures must meet in order to succeed in a defamation claim, emphasizing the need to prove actual malice on the part of the defendant and to defeat a substantial truth defense.
Harrison was a significant case in the evolution of media law in Illinois and the United States, underscoring the importance of a free and independent press in holding public officials accountable and informing the public.
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