Friday, October 26, 2012

Appeals Judge Won't Allow Fox Chicago Affiliate to SLAPP Away Libel Suit

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In James Ryan v. Fox Television Stations Inc. et al (Case No. 10 L 006258), Illinois appellate court Justice Maureen Connors this week upheld a lower court ruling denying WFLD Fox News Chicago a route to escape a $28 million defamation suit filed by enraged Judge James Ryan via Illinois' anti-SLAPP ("Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation") statute [735 Ill. Comp. Stat. 110/15].

As reported by the THR, Esq. Web site, circuit court judge Ryan was reassigned after being one of the judges targeted in a four-part investigative report by the Chicago Fox affiliate regarding judges' purported lax work habits. The series featured sheriff's logs allegedly depicting courtrooms closing early during work hours and employed hidden cameras to show judges sunbathing and engaging in other decidedly non-jurist activities.

Ryan's suit was prompted by footage allegedly showing a car in the driveway of his home during daytime work hours as narration suggested Ryan had left the courthouse early. Unfortunately for Fox, it was Ryan's neighbor's home and vehicle that was featured in the account.

Ryan sued for defamation, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress and Fox offered an anti-SLAPP defense, which is intended to derail intimidating lawsuits designed to stifle free speech about issues of public interest. Although Justice Connors ceded that a news story in furtherance of free speech was the type of activity warranting anti-SLAPP protection, she ruled against Fox because she didn't believe Ryan's lawsuit was without merit.

Though she tweaked her judicial colleague by questioning how the $28 million damages amount he is seeking could be "factually justified," Justice Connors expressed doubt that Fox's story was "substantially true." She wasn't sold on the proposition that Ryan not being present in courtroom at certain hours equated to neglecting his judicial duties, writing in her opinion that "a judge's official duties do not require a constant presence in the courtroom itself at all times, or even in the courthouse."
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