(Photo credit: Google images (visited 10.29.14); Associated Press)
The First District recently weighed in on the nature and scope of defamation law and the false light and intrusion on seclusion civil claims in a case involving a well-known Chicago newscaster.
In Jacobson v. CBS Broadcasting, Inc., 2014 IL App (1st) 132480, the plaintiff – a former NBC television reporter – sued rival network CBS when it aired a video of her at the backyard swimming pool of a person of interest in a high-profile missing persons’ case the plaintiff was covering.
CBS showed a video it secretly took of the plaintiff while she was visiting the house of Craig Stebic – whose wife Lisa went missing in 2007 and who hasn’t resurfaced to this day. The case garnered daily local and national news coverage for several weeks and was a staple of Nancy Grace’s nightly CNN show.
At the height of the case’s notoriety, plaintiff went to the Stebic house to discuss the case. While there, she was videotaped by a neighbor and CBS reporter. Sensing some salacious television fare (my conjecture), CBS aired the tape and plaintiff was shortly fired by NBC for violating journalistic ethics rules (a lapse in judgment, according to network honchos).
The plaintiff sued Chicago’s CBS station, claiming that the tape and broadcast violated her right to privacy, was defamatory, and led to her firing by NBC. The plaintiff specifically alleged that the videotape placed her in a false light and tried to portray her as “an adulteress and an unethical reporter.”
The trial court granted summary judgment for CBS and plaintiff appealed.
Plaintiff’s claims failed because she was a public figure, failed to prove actual malice by CBS and lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy at a backyard swimming pool.
Defamation Count: Plaintiff is a ‘Limited Public Figure’
The Court found that plaintiff was a public figure under defamation law who must show “actual malice” to win a defamation suit. Two types of public figures include (1) a general purpose public figure, and (2) a limited purpose public figure. When someone “thrust [herself] to the forefront of a particular public controversy, she becomes a limited public figure for matters associated with the given controversy. ¶¶ 29-31.
The Court agreed with the trial judge that plaintiff was a limited purpose public figure since she was enmeshed with a controversial news story that attracted national attention. Plaintiff clearly injected herself into the teeth of the drama by frequenting the Stebic residence, participating in public vigils and urging the public to come forward with any information about Lisa Stebic’s whereabouts.
The Court also found that plaintiff failed to show “actual malice” by CBS. To defeat summary judgment in a defamation count, the public figure plaintiff must show actual malice: that defendant (1) published (i.e. wrote or said) the defamatory falsehood either with knowledge that it was false, or (2) with a reckless disregard to its truth. Reckless disregard means that the defendant had a “high degree of awareness” that the statement was probably false or “entertain[ed] serious doubts as to its truth.” Where the defamatory content is implied (rather than overt), the plaintiff has to show the defendant was subjectively aware of the implied meaning, or at least recklessly disregarded the implied meaning.
The crux of plaintiff’s defamation suit was the video’s juxtaposed images: plaintiff in her swimsuit cross-cut against a shirtless Craig Stebic. Plaintiff claimed the video implied a sexual relationship between the two.
The court held this wasn’t enough to establish express or implied malice. There were too many non-defamatory alternatives to plaintiff’s interpretation of the video – especially since plaintiff’s children and other people were in the backyard at the same time. The Court also declined to imply actual malice by CBS just because it was locked in a fierce ratings battle with NBC at the time of taping. ¶¶ 37, 41-42.
Take-aways: (1) A limited purpose public figure must meet heightened actual malice standard to state a defamation case; (2) intrusion on seclusion tort is difficult to win where the location of an alleged private or secluded site is easily viewed or accessed by third parties.