Ill. Court Rules for Paper in Headline Libel Case

By: Mark Fitzgerald

A headline standing alone on a front page is not libelous if the accompanying story published inside the paper is capable of “innocent construction,” an Illinois appellate court ruled as it dismissed a defamation and false light accusation against the Chicago Sun-Times.

Like many states, Illinois law has generally held that a headline is not defamatory if the story right below it can be read as non-defamatory. This was the first case that focused on a headline without any accompanying story, said Damon Dunn, the Sun-Times‘ attorney: “This can be a real issue for tabloids and magazines, since you can’t put the story on the front page or cover.”

At issue was the Sun-Times‘ use of the word “kidnapping” in a headline referring to a federal case that ordered Deirdre Harrison to return her young child to Italy. The First Division of the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that though Harrison was never formally charged with kidnapping her child from Italy, the term conveyed the “gist or sting” of the federal court ruling.

“This could be useful precedent for papers not only in Illinois but elsewhere,” said Dunn, an attorney with the Chicago firm Funkhouser Vegosen Liebman & Dunn, Ltd.

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