Appeals panel upholds dismissal of Northwestern professor's defamation suit vs Sun-Times over sexual assault allegations

By Sherry Jiao | Apr 23, 2015

A state appeals panel has refused to allow a former Northwestern University professor to resume his suit against several Chicago news media outlets, which he alleged defamed him by wrongly accusing him of rape in headlines connected to stories reporting a female student’s sexual abuse allegations against him.

On April 17, a three justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court affirmed the dismissal of former Northwestern philosophy professor Peter Ludlow’s defamation complaint against defendant media companies Sun-Times Media, Cumulus Broadcasting and Fox Television Stations Inc.

The case stems from a Feb. 12, 2012, incident involving a female student, identified in court documents only as “Y.H.”

Ludlow and the student attended an art exhibit, pertinent to the class, together, and went to a restaurant later that evening, where Ludlow is alleged to have pressured her to drink wine, despite her being underage. He allegedly continued to pressure her to drink throughout the rest of the night. Denying her requests to be taken home, he ultimately brought her back to his apartment, where she was allegedly “blacking in and out” from intoxication.

The following day, the student reported the incident to another professor, prompting Northwestern to launch an investigation.

The investigation determined Y.H. was “unable to offer meaningful consent” and Ludlow had engaged in unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances.

The student later sued the university over the incident. And on Feb. 10, 2014, the Chicago Sun-Times published an article with the headline “Student allegedly raped by professor suing Northwestern University,” never identifying the subjects by name.

Following the Chicago Sun-Times article about the lawsuit, Cumulus Broadcasting and Fox Television Stations published on Feb. 11, 2014, on their respective websites a verbatim copy of the Chicago Sun-Times article with the identical headline. The same day, the plaintiff’s counsel demanded the Sun-Times to delete the headline reference to “rape.” The revised headline read “Student claiming sexual assault by professor suing Northwestern.”

In turn, Fox News and Cumulus revised their headline on the web page, but not the URL or Twitter feeds containing the original headline referencing rape.

Ludlow filed a complaint on Feb. 14, 2014, against the media outlets, alleging defamation and false-light invasion of privacy resulting from the publication of the headline stating a Northwestern student had been “raped” by a professor. Ludlow argued the student had never claimed she was raped, and the headline’s false statement had publicly cast him in a false light.

In response, Fox News, the Sun-Times and Cumulus filed motions to dismiss Ludlow’s complaint because the headline and article did not name the professor or student, and the headline was capable of an innocent construction and was fair a fair report of Y.H.’s allegations. Fox News and Cumulus further claimed the wire service defense protected them because they were merely republishing an article from the reputable Sun-Times wire.

The circuit court granted all of the defendants’ motions, except for the wire service defense, because it is not recognized by Illinois courts.

Ludlow appealed, but the dismissal was upheld.

In a Rule 23 order, Justice Mary K. Rochford said a reader seeking to deduce the identity of the Northwestern professor referenced in the article and headline would need to examine the federal court complaint, which was not attached to the article. Thus, the court concluded, this could not be counted as defamation, because the subject of the headline was never made explicitly clear.

“Because plaintiff’s unsuccessful defamation per se claim is the basis of his false-light claim, plaintiff’s false-light invasion of privacy claim fails, as well,” Rochford wrote.

Justices Thomas E. Hoffman and Bertina E. Lampkin concurred in the order.

The justices concluded by noting even an amended complaint would not save Ludlow’s litigation against the media companies.

“We would deny his request to replead, where no amendment would have cured the deficiencies of the complaint, specifically, that the alleged defamatory statement did not identify plaintiff and thus was subject to an innocent construction,” the justices wrote.

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