Defamation is a false, factual statement published to a third party reader or listener. Illinois recognizes two types of defamation – libel (written) and slander (oral) and the same rules apply to both.
A defamation plaintiff must present sufficient facts establishing (1) a false statement about the plaintiff, (2) that’s not privileged, (3) to a third party; and (4) that caused damages.
A defamatory statement is per se (meaning no proof of specific damages are required) defamatory when it’s harmful on its face. Defamatory per se statements are those that (1) impute that a plaintiff committed a crime; (2) impute a plaintiff is unable to perform or lacks integrity in his employment; or (3) statements that plaintiff lacks ability or that otherwise prejudices the plaintiff in her profession.
Only statements that are factual (“he stole $1,000 from me”) – capable of being proven true or false – are actionable; opinions are not (“I think he’s a nut job!”). Calling someone a crook, a traitor, trashy, a rip-off artist are examples of non-defamatory statements of opinion under prior Illinois cases.
Even per se defamatory statements are not actionable if they are reasonably capable of an innocent construction. Under the innocent-construction rule, a court considers a statement in context and gives words their natural and ordinary meaning. If a statement in context is reasonably susceptible to a nondefamatory meaning, it should be given that meaning.
Truth is a defense to defamation. The challenged statement doesn’t have to be completely true; it’s enough that it’s ‘substantially true’. A defamatory statement is also not actionable where it’s subject to a privilege. Two privileges the law recognizes are absolute and qualified privileges.
Qualified privilege applies where as a matter of law and general policy, the defendant has an interest in or duty to make the communication such that it’s privileged. A classic example of a qualified privilege statement involves a corporation’s statement made while investigating an employee’s conduct.
Once a qualified privilege attaches, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant intentionally published the material knowing it was false or displaying a reckless disregard as to it truth. “Reckless disregard” means the speaker made a statement aware that it’s probably false with serious doubts as to its truth.
Source: Coghlan v. Beck (http://www.state.il.us/court/opinions/AppellateCourt/2013/1stDistrict/1120891.pdf