Matters of Public Concern

In the early years of our country into the early part of the twentieth century, politicians at both the federal and state level passed numerous laws aimed at stopping individuals and the press from discussing the salacious details of the latest political scandal or criticizing a politician’s stance on a controversial piece of legislation. To combat these laws and their chilling effect on speech, the Supreme Court provided special protection from defamation liability for statements concerning matters of public concern.

The Supreme Court explained that the freedom to discuss matters of public concern is fundamental to a healthy democracy because it promotes an informed electorate and keeps politicians accountable to their constituents. Without protecting this category of speech, the press would be forced to censor what it wrote depriving people of much-needed information.

Courts take two considerations into account when determining whether and to what extent the Constitution constrains state defamation law: whether the plaintiff is a public or private figure and whether the speech at issue is a matter of public concern.

Under Illinois law, the first consideration—whether the plaintiff is a public or private figure—bears on the burden of proof for establishing liability while the second consideration—whether the speech is a matter of public concern—bears on the standard that must be satisfied in order to recover punitive damages. As the Illinois Supreme Court explained in Imperial Apparel v. Cosmo's Designer Direct, where a claim of defamation is based on statements concerning a matter of public concern, punitive damages may not be awarded unless the plaintiff proves that the defendant acted with actual malice.

The Supreme Court first articulated the concept of protecting speech concerning matters of public interest in the early twentieth century and reiterated the concept in a number of seminal First Amendment cases such as New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) and Time, Inc. v. Hill (1967).

These opinions acknowledged that matters of public concern receive heightened protection under the First Amendment without elaborating on what constitutes a “public concern” (or the phrase “of public interest” is used interchangeably in numerous opinions). The Supreme Court sought to define the line between matters of public concern and matters of private concern in a series of cases in the early seventies into the early eighties. These cases include Rosenbloom v. Metromedia Inc. (1971), Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974), Connick v. Myers (1983), and Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc. (1985).

Ultimately the Supreme Court decided that speech addresses a matter of public concern if it is “relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community" or “is a subject of legitimate news interest; that is, a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public.” The determination of whether speech addresses a matter of public concern “must be determined by the content, form, and context of a given statement, as revealed by the whole record.” It is a question of law not of fact, meaning that the determination is made by the judge and not the jury.

Lubin Austermuehle’s Chicago area defamation and slander lawyers near Evanston and Schaumburg have concentrated in this area of law for many decades. From offices in Elmhurst and Wilmette, near Park Ridge and Highland Park, we serve clients throughout Illinois and the Midwest. You can contact us online here.

Client Reviews
"I was referred to Peter Lubin from someone in the car business to handle a law suit. From the moment I made the appointment Peter and his staff were outstanding. This wasn't an easy case, most lawyers had turned me down. However, Peter took the time to meet with me and review everything. He took on the case, and constantly communicated with me about updates and case information. We beat this non-compete agreement case in record time. I would use him again and recommend him to my closest family and friends. 5 stars is not enough to thank him for his service." Sebastian R.
"I worked on two occasions with Peter Lubin and his staff. They took their time with me and discussed each and every item in detail. The group makes you feel like you are part of the family and not just another hourly charge. I recommend Peter to anyone who asks me for a referral. If you are looking for a top notch attorney at a reasonable rate, look no further than Lubin Austermuehle." Kurt A.
"Excellent law firm. My case was a complicated arbitration dispute from another state. Was handled with utmost professionalism and decency. Mr. Peter Lubin was able to successfully resolve the case on my behalf and got me a very favorable settlement. Would recommend to anyone looking for a serious law firm. Great staff and great lawyers!" Albey L.
"I have known Peter Lubin for over 30 years. He has represented me on occasion with sound legal advice. He is a shrewd and tough negotiator leading to positive outcomes and averting prolonged legal hassles in court. He comes from a family with a legal pedigree and deep roots in Chicago's top legal community. You want him on your case. You need him on your opponents case. He won't stop fighting until he wins." Christopher G.
"Peter and his team helped us with an auto fraud case. They communicated well (timely and very responsive), investigated deeply, and negotiated a very good settlement. We were able to resolve our significant issue without a large burden and in a manner that allowed for us to come out ahead. I'd recommend Peter and his team strongly!" R.J. Callahan
"Peter was really nice and helpful when I came to him with an initial question about a non-compete. Would definitely reach out again, recommended to everyone." Johannes B.