Several members of Chicago's Polish population recently failed to hold a Chicago Sun-Times columnist responsible for libel based on a column concerning the treatment of Jews in Poland during and after WWII. The individual plaintiffs couldn't base a claim on the column's references to "Poles."
George Otto, Adeladja Bochemeck, and Michael Niedzinski, filed a libel suit against Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg. Mr. Steinberg wrote a column contrasting Black History Month with recent Polish governmental censorship of certain historical perspectives of atrocities committed against Jews in Poland in World War II. According to Steinberg's column:
"Poland has a long history of anti-Semitism. It was antiSemitic before World War II.... During the war, while there was certainly heroism — the unprepared Polish Army did charge German tanks on horseback — there was widespread collaboration in the form of killing off Jews, including my grandfather's entire family and his brother Zalman. The above paragraph is true, and the whole truth is far worse. Poles were killing Jews after the war, out of habit, when they tried to return to their villages."
The plaintiffs alleged that they lived in Poland during World War II and did not take part in any atrocities against Jews. In fact, they claimed, they witnessed Poles taking heroic actions to help Jews during that time. Accordingly, they contend, Steinberg's article defamed them in their roles as Polish nationals living in Poland during the relevant time period.
Mr. Stenberg and the Sun-Times filed a motion to dismiss the complaint in the trial court, which the court granted. The plaintiffs were unable to persuade the Illinois appellate court to reverse.
In making their claim, the plaintiffs ran into the doctrine known as "group libel." The rule provides that where a statement defames a sufficiently large group, members of the group cannot make individual claims absent some evidence that they were identified in the publication. Here, the column did not single out the three plaintiffs. As the court noted, "[i]n this case, . . . we cannot construe Steinberg's generalizations to specifically name the three named plaintiffs. The article does not mention them anywhere. Unlike the cited cases dealing with publications referring to a very small discrete group of persons, the article refers in general terms to an entire nation of millions of people. Therefore, plaintiffs did not state a valid defamation per se claim under Illinois law."
The appellate court also held that the column was protected by the "innocent construction rule." That rule provides that where a publication is subject to an innocent construction, as well as a defamatory construction, the court must adopt the innocent construction. In applying that rule to this case, the appellate court ruled, "the article did not refer to emigrants from Poland who grew up in Poland during World War II, and it does not mention the city of Chicago in any context, other than in the name of the newspaper itself on the masthead. Accordingly, we struggle to find exactly how a reader could connect a historical article that deals with Poland, Polish internal politics, and potential atrocities after World War II, as specifically referring to three local Polish emigrants out of a pool of millions of potential actors."
While the plaintiffs can seek a discretionary appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, this is likely the end of the line. Strength in numbers may apply in some circumstances, but apparently not in libel cases.