Tag Archives: Actual Malice

Illinois Appellate Court Holds That News Reporter Is Limited Purpose Public Figure and Enters Summary Judgment Against Her

In Jacobson v CBS Broadcasting, Inc., the Illinois Appellate Court held that Amy Jacobson, a television news reporter for WMAQ, NBC-5, was a limited purpose public figure and granted summary judgment for defendant, CBS Broadcasting, Inc. The lawsuit arose from a report by a competing news station, which broadcast a video of Jacobson, clothed in a bikini and towel at the backyard pool of Craig Stebic. At the time, Stebic was a suspect in the disappearance of his wife. The Stebics were engaged in a contentious divorce proceeding and Mrs. Stebic’s disappearance received widespread media coverage. The CBS videotape, taken from a neighbor’s home, was edited. Jacobson claimed that the editing placed her in a false light and portrayed her as an adulteress and an unethical reporter. The broadcast described Jacobson as having gravely crossed an ethical line and operating under a conflict of interest. Jacobson brought claims for defamation per se, intrusion upon seclusion, false light, intentional infliction of emotional distress and tortious interference with a business relationship (Jacobson was fired after the broadcast).

In affirming the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, the Appellate Court rejected CBS’s contention that Jacobson was a general purpose public figure as a consequence of being a well-known television news reporter. The Court found that despite winning four Emmy awards, Jacobson had not achieved pervasive fame or br0ad societal influence commanded by general purpose public figures. Nonetheless, it found that Jacobson was a limited purpose public figure because she voluntarily interjected herself into the public controversy surrounding Lisa Stebic’s disappearance and was actively covering the story in the course of her news reports. Thus, the Court found that Jacobson must meet the actual malice standard of New York Times v. Sullivan to go prevail in her lawsuit. The Court found there was no evidence that CBS published the videotape and report with knowledge of its falsity or in reckless disregard of the truth. Further, although there was evidence that the videotape was edited, the Court found that there was no basis to conclude that it was edited to convey that Jacobson was engaged in a sexual relationship with Craig Stebic. The Court also found that there was no basis for an intrusion claim because the pool area was viewable from public property from which Jacobson had no reasonable expectation of privacy, notwithstanding that the video was taken with a zoom lens. The court further found that the video did not record any specific act that could be considered private. In addition, the Court applied Hustler v. Falwell and held that its findings on Jacobson’s claims for defamation and false light required that the derivative claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and tortious interference with business expectations must also be dismissed.

Jacobson is an example of the burdens on public figures in proving actual malice with convincing clarity. However, it may be cited by plaintiffs in future cases in their rebuttal of arguments that they are general purpose public figures.