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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

States Attorney is a Public Official for Defamation Claim

An Assistant State's Attorney filed a lawsuit against an individual for statements he made in a letter to the editor of the local newspaper.  The letter expressed the defendant's displeasure with the ASA, and his "perceived" bullying of his son who had been cited for a traffic violation.  The defendant argued the case should be dismissed because the ASA is a public official and she failed to show that defendant's statements amounted to malice in her defamation claim.  Vicars-Duncan v. Tactikos, 2014 IL App (4th) 131064 (2014).

The trial court dismissed the ASA's lawsuit, finding that an ASA is a public official because her duties are "governmental in character and highly charged with the public interest." Because the ASA had not plead malice in her lawsuit against the letter writer, her defamation claim could not proceed. The appellate court agreed with the trial court, and discussed what a plaintiff has to prove in a defamation claim:

(1)    the defendant made a false statement about the plaintiff;
(2)    the defendant made an unprivileged publication of that statement to a third party; and 
(3)    that publication caused damages.

If the plaintiff is a public official, the plaintiff must also prove that the "statement was made with actual malice" - or with knowledge that the statement was false or reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.  This additional element makes it harder for a public official to prove a defamation case, which the court acknowledges is because public officials occupy important positions about which  the public has great interest.  The court acknowledged cases that had discussed whether an individual was a public official, including a police officer and a city attorney (public officials), and a school principal and a jailer (not public officials).  

Because the ASA was a public official, she was required to plead malice - which she failed to do.  As a result, her defamation case against the letter writer was properly dismissed.

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf


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