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Pitale v. Holestine, 2012 WL 638755 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 27, 2012) (full-text).
Factual Background Edit
Plaintiff Pitale and Defendant Holestine were both employed at American Career College and West Coast University. This suit stems from statements made through Wikipedia entries by Holestine, which Pitale alleges were both defamatory per se and false light invasion of privacy.
Trial Court Proceedings Edit
The First Amendment places a high value on the freedom of speech, and that value takes concrete form in the law's refusal to impose liability for speech unless certain hurdles are overcome. The speech at dispute in a lawsuit must state a fact, not merely an opinion. There is no claim if the statement is "capable of innocent nondefamatory construction." In addition, the plaintiff must establish that the statement concerns him/her and there must be some requisite state of mind.
The first statement at issue in this case is the following entry to Wikipedia:
|“||Both presidents report to Chief Operating Officer Anthony J. Pitale. He is the former owner and founder of Eldorado College and Orange County Business College. The schools were closed by the Department of Education due to high default rates after a battle with the regulators over questionable refund policies from 1990-1994.||”|
The court determined that this statement could not form the basis of a defamation claim because it is equally capable of being interpreted to refer to persons other than Pitale, or to the "schools" generally, especially when viewed in the context of the rest of the Wikipedia entry. To the extent that a statement can naturally be read as innocent or as defamatory, the tie goes to the speaker in the interest of protecting First Amendment expression. The court also held that the above statement is capable of an innocent construction that does not impute lack of integrity in job performance or cause prejudice to Pitale’s work — the schools may have been closed, but did plaintiff do anything wrong to cause them to be closed?
Plaintiff alleged that this first statement also constituted actionable false light under Illinois law. Although false light is a different cause of action than defamation per se, the analyses are similar because false light claims must also be "of and concerning" the plaintiff and are equally subject to the innocent construction rule. Applying the same analysis to this statement in a false light context as in a defamation context, the court determined that a reader could just as reasonably interpret the statement to implicate a third party or entity other than plaintiff and as such could not form the basis of plaintiff's complaint.
The second statement at issue is the following Wikipedia entry about Eldorado College:
|“||The college closed [on] September 11, 1997 after a financial scandal led to the revocation of its accreditation, as well as its eligibility to receive funds from its alumni and various charities. Mr. Pitale, defiant to the end, claimed that the school[’]s failure was the result of "overzealous bureaucrats" versus any wrongdoings by the owner of the organization.||”|
By contrast, this statement cannot be innocently construed and can reasonably be interpreted as stating actual fact not just merely an opinion. Three factors are considered to determine whether a statement is opinion or fact: (1) whether the statement has a precise meaning; (2) whether it is verifiable; and (3) whether its literary or social context suggests it is factual.
Similarly, this statement, which Pitale alleges is false, is sufficient to base a claim of false light. The statement does target Pitale as the wrongdoer, it is allegedly false, and it was publicly disseminated through Wikipedia.
The defendant allegedly posted additional comments about Pitale on a “wall of Shame” blog post. These statements included ones that Pitale "led schools amid a scandal around short changing the students and state government on student refunds," and that the Eldorado College was "closed by the Department of Education for student default rate violations that exceeded 25% for three consecutive years." Additionally, the blog post states that Pitale engaged in “unsavory actions” and “inappropriate education management practices.”
While the Wikipedia entries discussed above referenced plaintiff within the context of entries pertaining to schools he had worked with and/or founded, the Wall of Shame posts directly referenced Pitale and included his name and picture at the top. While the court determined that those statement indicating that Pitale engaged in "unsavory actions" and "inappropriate education management practices" were too imprecise and unverifiable to base a claim for defamation or false light, the remaining comments on the Wall of Shame post were sufficient to satisfy the elements of both causes of action.