What’s in a Name? Unidentified Professor’s Defamation Claim Dismissed

As reported in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin (login required), an Illinois appellate court affirmed dismissal of a Northwestern University professor’s lawsuit against media outlets over headlines reporting that he was alleged to have “raped” a student.  See Ludlow v. Sun-Times Media, LLC et al.  Although Professor Ludlow admitted that a student accused him of getting her drunk before sexually assaulting her in his apartment, his complaint contended that the Sun-Times’ headline summarizing the sexual assault allegations as “rape” damaged his good name.

The problem, according to the appellate court, was that his good name appeared nowhere in the headline, let alone the underlying article.  As a result, the headline could have referred to some other Northwestern philosophy professor besides Ludlow.  Under Illinois’ innocent construction rule, the availability of this alternate interpretation was fatal to the claim of defamation per se.  The appellate court found too many degrees of separation since readers could identify Ludlow only by looking up the student’s federal complaint against Northwestern University over its handling of the situation.

Having disposed of the case at the threshold, the appellate court did not reach the lower court’s alternative grounds for dismissal, e.g., that  the headline was substantially true because “rape” and “sexual assault” are regarded as synonyms in both legal and common usage and, in any event, the severity of the students’ allegations equated to a rape.  The lurid allegations included that the professor insisted the student consume alcohol, despite being under drinking age, until she became so intoxicated that she blacked out.  The student alleged that Ludlow denied her request to be driven home and took her to his apartment building, where he began “furiously making out” with her in an elevator and told her it was “inevitable” that they would have sex.  The student’s next recollection, according to her court filings, was waking up in Ludlow’s bed with his arm around her.

The appellate court’s avoidance of the alleged rape/sexual assault distinction also leaves unresolved a heated academic debate that followed the trial court’s decision.  A University of Chicago philosophy professor was criticized by a feminist philosopher for, in her view, downplaying the suffering of victims of sexual assaults which the U of C professor felt did not qualify as rapes.

Although the decision to protect individuals by withholding their names may have been justified given the particular circumstances (unproven civil allegations involving private persons), the corollary, which the court inadvertently illustrated, is that protecting Ludlow’s name did not clear the other philosophy professors at the school.  Ultimately, however, the publicity attending the student’s lawsuit against the University sparked a firestorm of protests at two campuses (Northwestern and Rutgers, which had reportedly been considering offering a job to Ludlow prior to the lawsuit) and a spiral of lawsuits between the professor and student and the school.

FVLD represented Sun-Times Media, LLC, which published the report at issue through its wire service.  The article was then picked up by the other defendants.

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