Police Officer’s Libel Case Against Newsweek May Proceed

From Wolinski v. Newsweek Digital, LLC, decided yesterday by Judge Jeremy Daniel (N.D. Ill.):

According to the amended complaint, in February 2019, Plaintiff Alex Wolinski, a sergeant in the Chicago Police Department, supervised a tactical team of twelve Chicago Police Department officers in the execution of a search warrant at the home of Ms. Anjanette Young. Upon entering her home, the officers encountered Ms. Young, naked, and handcuffed her. One of the officers covered Ms. Young’s naked body with a large blanket that was located in her home.

It was ultimately determined that neither Ms. Young nor her residence had any connection to the target of the search warrant. The incident, which was captured on video by the officers’ body-worn cameras (“BWC”), led to a Civilian Office of Police Accountability (“COPA”) investigation and a lawsuit between Ms. Young and the City of Chicago.

In January 2022, Defendant Newsweek Digital, LLC published an article regarding the search and the resulting settlement that Ms. Young received from the City. In the article, Newsweek cited COPA’s recommendation that Wolinski be suspended for a year with the possibility of “separation from the department.” The article also purported to describe the BWC footage of the incident, stating:

Body camera footage from that night shows police breaking down Young’s door while she was in the middle of undressing. She is seen handcuffed naked for about 17 minutes and is heard repeatedly telling officers they were at the wrong address.

Wolinski filed the instant defamation suit against Newsweek for statements made in the above publication. Wolinski alleges that the statement that Ms. Young was “seen handcuffed naked for about 17 minutes” is a substantial deviation from what is actually portrayed in the officers’ BWC footage and gives rise to the inference that he lacked integrity in performing his duties as a police officer and consciously disregarded Ms. Young’s dignity….

Newsweek first argues that Wolinski’s claim is barred under the fair report privilege because the challenged statement fairly summarizes COPA’s Summary Report of Investigation (“COPA Report”) and the claims made in Ms. Young’s civil lawsuit. The fair report privilege provides that a defamatory statement is not actionable under Illinois law if the statement is a “complete and accurate or fair abridgement of [an] official proceeding.” The benchmark of the privilege is “the accuracy of the summary”—not the truth or falsity of the information being summarized—as “the report is the public’s window to the proceeding.” …

Here, the FAC [First Amended Complaint] plainly challenges the accuracy of Newsweek’s summary of the BWC footage that was reviewed as part of the COPA investigation. Even assuming the COPA report’s summary of the BWC footage constitutes an “official proceeding” for purposes of the fair report privilege, the Court cannot, at this stage, conclude as a matter of law that the fair report privilege applies….

Newsweek also argues that Wolinski’s claim should be dismissed because the challenged statement is “substantially true” given the events as they are depicted on the BWC footage. Under Illinois law, a defamation claim fails if “the statement, although not technically true in every respect, was substantially true.” To establish substantial truth, a defendant need only show “the truth of the ‘gist’ or ‘sting’ of the defamatory material.” The “gist” or “sting” goes to the “heart of the matter in question,” in other words, “the hurtfulness of the utterance.” Typically, the determination of substantial truth is a question for the jury; however, “the question is one of law where no reasonable jury could find that substantial truth had not been established.” …

Here, the “gist” of Newsweek’s statement was that Wolinski disregarded Ms. Young’s dignity when he compelled Ms. Young to stand handcuffed and naked during the officers’ execution of the search. Wolinski challenges the statement on grounds that Ms. Young was not “seen naked” as the article states; rather, she was provided a blanket to cover herself within seconds of the officers’ entry into her home. Because it is plausible that a reasonable jury could disagree as to the “sting” of this statement on Wolinski’s integrity as a police officer, the Court declines to dismiss the defamation claim on grounds of substantial truth.

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